By Ryan Pike
Just over a decade ago, acclaimed British stage director Sam Mendes made the jump to film with American Beauty. The movie won five Academy Awards and instantly catapulted Mendes to the A-list. Since then, he’s used the medium to explore fatherhood with Road to Perdition, wartime boredom with Jarhead and the family unit with 2008’s Revolutionary Road. It’s fitting that Mendes’ first comedy, Away We Go, embraces and abandons many aspects of his previous-work.
In a good many ways, Away We Go serves as a companion piece to Revolutionary Road. Both films follow couples as they seek to create a home for their young families amidst the hustle and bustle of modern life. While Revolutionary Road fixated on the dysfunction of the husband and wife dynamic, with scene after scene of Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet screaming at each other, Away We Go takes the opposite approach.
Instead of focusing on the constraints of modern society, Mendes and co-writers — and real-life married couple — Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida tÂÂake a look at its possibilities. In the very first scene, long-term co-habitants Burt (John Krasinski, The Office) and Verona (Maya Rudolph, Saturday Night Live) discover she is pregnant.
Flash-forward six months and the couple discovers that their expected lifeline, Burt’s parents, are moving to Belgium for two years. With no real anchor weighing them to a particular spot, they’re faced with a unique conundrum ÂÂ– where do they want to start their family?
Working from that base, Away We Go is ostensibly a road trip movie, travelling from Arizona to Montreal and many places in-between.
Eggers and Vida’s story is very interested in the nature of home and family and how they’re constructed, and so nearly everyone that Burt and Verona encounter is in a different romantic or parental situation and dealing with it in their own way. In the hands of lesser writers this conceit could have come across as forced, but the filmmakers treat it as a logical product of the journey the couple are on.
Much like Revolutionary Road, Away We Go rests largely in the hands of its leading couple. Flying in the face of his previous casting of big-name movie stars like Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Tom Hanks, Mendes instead plucked his actors from the obscurity of TV comedy. This gamble largely works.
Embracing the gung-ho comedic energy of his character on The Office, John Krasinski embodies Burt with effortless charm. Largely seen in the sketch-comedy wasteland of SNL for the past decade, Maya Rudolph is a revelation — her performance ranging from emotionally wrenching to gut-bustingly funny without feeling false. While Revolutionary Road’s story suffered because its leads were such unlikable jerks, Krasinski and Rudolph inhabit Burt and Verona with such unabashed likeablity that it’s easy to spend 95 minutes in their company.
Unfortunately, some of the secondary characters in the film aren’t as well-crafted. The most notorious culprit is Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an old family friend of Burt. Despite Gyllenhaal diving full-bore into the absurdities of her hippie character, the majority of her scenes with Burt and Verona feature jokes that are unfunny or just downright mean. In a film that attempts to spend enough time with each character, big or small, to get the audience to relate to them, the depiction of Ellen as a closed-minded, self-righteous zealot really doesn’t fit with the rest of the puzzle.
After making four films that explored their themes through a dramatic lens, it’s a treat to witness Sam Mendes look at them in a different way. Instead of delivering two scoops of bleakness, Away We Go is a more optimistic rumination on the notions of family and love that works because of the emotional honesty present in the writing.