Director: Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Jarhead, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road)
Screenplay: Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida
Starring: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Catherine O’Hara
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 98 min.
Meet Burt and Verona, two lovable ‘fuck-ups’ who set across the continent in search of a new life to raise their unborn daughter. Now in their mid-thirties, the couple struggles with the outer demands of maturity while staying true to the inner autism of their affection. As a nation of two with few worldly belongings and even fewer societal ties, the couple decide to breech the borders of their safe respite and visit distant friends and family in the hopes of finding a place to belong in the world. In a Broken Flowers sort of way, they bounce from one city to the next, the recipients of parental advice that run the gamut of the freakishly absurd to the sadly poignant. Though eccentric themselves, Burt and Verona come to realize how precious their bond is when compared to the unchecked madness of the new normalcy.
Away We Go unfolds in manic tonal departures that scales the heights of comedic vulgarity, indie quirkiness, wrought sentimentality and bleak candor. It is a gloriously original mess of a film that defies easy classification. Not even Judd Apatow’s formula of raunchy-comedy-with-heart quite lives up to this tone deaf mixing of the silly and the scathing. The uncomfortable explicitness of infertility and drawn-out descriptions of borderline incestuous behavior, one-up the now typical Apatow avant-guard. Even the most challenging of commercial movies do little more than flirt with the edges of the audience’s comfort zone, but Away We Go doesn’t pull its punches, and amidst radical tonal shifts evoking laughter and tears, here the audience is left to fend for themselves.
Further complicating this anomaly of a movie is its aesthetic of indifference, which is unlike anything director Sam Mendes has attempted before. His past works tend towards a stilted monumentality of composition, that pace unevenly due to the emphasis on each frame, but in Away We Go there is virtually nothing in the film that evokes his signature, and by and large the cinematograpy felt sparse. The real aesthetic of the movie is the actors themselves, particularly the pairing of John Krasinski’s Burt with his goofy and gormless wide eye innocence and Maya Rudolph’s Verona with her perfunctory self-awareness and world-weary demeanor. Despite much of the satirical elements in the film, their relationship has a lived-in believability that few cinematic couples so successfully capture.
The one certifiable authorial imprint that I recognize in this film is co-writer, and McSweeney’s founder, Dave Eggers. Away We Go is Eggers in cinematic form, fans of his work can sound a sigh of relief that the same agitation of raw emotion and biting human insight is alive and well in this, his first venture into screenwriting. As achieved in his A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers (with Vendela Vida as co-writer) bypass the now accepted tonal balance of irony-encased sincerity so as to broker a new kind of experience. This is not your Diablo Cody approach of say a bunch of clever things and insert an equally clever emotional payoff that slides effortlessly into the mix, Away We Go allows satire and sincerity to co-exist side by side as equals. The film knows you know how this is supposed to go, and it tells you it knows, and then shows you how to experience it without having to be either sarcastically sincere or sincerely sarcastic, it invites you to go through expectations to encounter something else altogether. For the academic this is post-post-modern, for the uninitiated, its a hard pill to swallow.
The Eggers’ conceit to storytelling, however, does not exempt the film of all its flaws. The satirical elements pertaining to alternative parenting styles were a bit too broad and long winded, and like Tarantino, Eggers draws attention to his own peculiar knack for dialogue that can revel in artifice for the sake of a joke, not always helping to give the characters a sense of real identity. But these remain minor nitpicks for me, as the story touches upon so many revelations about life that especially in cinema rarely if at all get uttered.
Social misfits have been depicted in film many times but rarely with such a genuine sense of dignity, that we are seeing Burt and Verona as awkward only in relation to some outer ideal, the harmony they create in their private conversations are decoded and made valuable through them intimately. Likewise, the reveals made by the Montreal friends in the movie hits a note of such raw poignancy that it touched me in a way of direct communion that Eggers has a penchant for doing. The film gives you the safe jokes about character eccentricities but then overturns them to show you something real and human about these characters. There is a tension to the storytelling, I never felt entirely comfortable watching this film, I felt in the hands of something new unsure where I was about to be taken.
More Alexander Payne than Sam Mendes, more Dave Eggers than Diablo Cody, this strange platypus of a movie forms in ways unexpected and original, and is a fitting introduction for the non-literate part of society to this young writer’s voice.