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Away We Go

Away We Go
Directed by Sam Mendes

Give Sam Mendes credit – at least he’s finding new ways to make less-than-satisfying films. From the leaden, humorless graphic novel adaptation Road to Perdition, to last year’s hopelessly shrill Revolutionary Road, to this year’s comparatively light road movie Away We Go, Mendes’ troubles at least variate.

Away finds us in the company of Burt (The Office‘s John Krasinski) and Verona (SNL alum Maya Rudolph), anxious parents-to-be who have decided to go on an ambitious road trip following the news that their parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) have decided to move to Europe for two years, leaving them alone to deal with child-rearing. Their itinerary includes Phoenix, Tucson, Wisconsin, Montreal and eventually Miami, with each location providing vignettes of varying tone, and interest.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Mendes’ film works best during its more pensive episodes, particularly those involving Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider) in Miami and their old college friends (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) in Montreal. In both cases, Away allows its scope to widen beyond Burt and Verona’s anxieties to ackowledge that other characters may have compelling inner lives – the same can’t be said for the other segments, which quickly devolve into rote mockery. The worst offender comes first, with Verona’s old boss (Allison Janney) in Phoenix, most of which consists of Janney ranting impolitely – and improbably – on uncomfortably intimate subjects. The improbability that anyone, particularly Rudolph’s mild-mannered character, would trek across the country to visit such a vile person stops the movie dead in its tracks. Not far behind is the Wisconsin segment, which features Maggie Gyllenhaal as Burt’s “cousin,” an obnoxious trust-fund hippie. In both cases, the episodes exist seemingly to make Rudolph and Krasinski seem appealingly “normal,” and overshoot the mark.

That problem is indicative of Away‘s greatest flaw, which is its smug insularity. Burt and Verona’s arc over the course of the film is akin to the Cat in the Hat’s seeking method – rather than going in search of something, they seem only to be interested in finding out how not to raise a child, which doesn’t make for compelling viewing when the screenplay doesn’t seem to hold much interest in anything else. How else to explain the film’s remarkable lack of physical placement, surely one of the hallmarks of any good road movie? The Montreal segment, for instance, evokes nothing particular to the city or its culture, features not one word of French, and generally feels like a wasted opportunity. Mendes seems to think that having Messina’s character shout “it’s Montreal, baby!” repeatedly will suffice.

Krasinski and Rudolph do their best to liven up the proceedings, and their efforts do brighten things up from time to time. They effectively conjure the anxieties of impending parenthood, and their obvious comic backgrounds come out in a few of the transitional scenes, usually involving Burt’s attempts to accelerate the unborn child’s lagging heart rate. Krasinski doesn’t seem comfortable with leading-man dramatics, though; he seems more at ease with the low-key comedy elements that coincide with his TV work. Of the supporting cast, only the ever-reliable Schneider, as well as Lynskey’s despairing homemaker, stand out.

Never finding an acceptable tone for its meandering plot, Away at least feels more identifiably human than Mendes’ last few efforts. If all it does well is solicit some ephemeral amusement and a few memorable scenes, then let’s count our blessings that at least we weren’t subjected to another insufferable table drama.

Simon Howell