Monday, June 29, 2009

Away We Go (**1/2)

Directed by Sam Mendes


After the enormous success of American Beauty, filmmaker Sam Mendes has been biding his time on melodramatic froth and getting Kate Winslet pregnant. Road To Perdition was a beautifully-lit father-and-son drama; Jarhead was a poor man's Three Kings; and Revolutionary Road was, though underrated, so unbelievably emotionally repellent that most audiences decided to ditch their Kate-Leo love, and skipped the film altogether. Away We Go is quite the thematic departure for Mendes, and though it is quite a hit-or-miss film, it is an interesting direction which Sam Mendes has taken.

The story revolves around a thirty-something couple: the charismatic, man-child Burt (John Krasinski), and the reserved, but well-humored Verona (Maya Rudolph). When Verona becomes pregnant, they are not very secure with their current lifestyles. Their home is ratty and doesn't have any heat. Verona believes that their lack of any fluency may be due to the fact that they are simply not very competent in life.

The two hoped to use Burt's eccentric parents (Catherine O'Hara & Jeff Daniels) as a crutch during their child's infancy, but they decide rather spontaneously to move to Belgium, and rent their home to a random man named 'Fareef' before allowing Burt and Verona to use it. Burt and Verona decide that they'll take a cross-country trip in hopes of finding the perfect place to raise their unborn child. Their trip will include Phoenix, Madison, Montreal, and Miami, where they'll interweave visits with various former friends, bosses, and family members.

In Phoenix, they see Lily (Alison Janney), Verona's one-time boss and a volatile personality who tarnishes her family to their faces and seems to relish attracting uncomfortable situations. While in Madison, they see Burt's childhood friend LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal; pronounced 'Ellen'), who has become an eccentric, married to an idealist hippie, and passionately refuses to let any of her children ride in a stroller. In Montreal, they meet up with old college buddies (Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey) who seem to be living a euphoric existence, but a deep secret suggests otherwise.

There is a great sub-plot toward the end of the film involving Burt's brother Courtney (a wonderful, if limited Paul Schneider), and how he deals with his wife leaving him. I bring this up because this is a film about two interesting, if static characters waltzing their way through various sub-plots which are sometimes intriguing, and other times terribly uninteresting. Particularly, the sequence with Burt's parents and the Phoenix sequence which opens the film, set the story up for a bumpy start which makes it hard to appreciate all of the better moments which came after.

Rudolph and Krasinski are two actors for which I have true admiration for. I love Karisinki's work on "The Office", and Rudolph's comedienne work on "SNL" and other shows and films are excellent. It's not that they're particularly bad in this film, because they seem to have a well-established sense of what their characters actions say about them. They speak solemnly, and seem like a very comfortable couple. Unfortunately, these characters are so stagnant and unchanging that their travels don't seem to have relevance most of the time.

Of course, some of their journeys are more interesting than others, but even the good ones don't seem to come to anything significant. Gyllenhaal's eccentric character adds the film's first real flair, even though it comes almost halfway through the film. Within the Montreal sequence, Melanie Lynskey (where has she been since Heavenly Creatures?) shows some wonderful subtlety as a married woman with deep-rooted unhappiness. It's good that we like the characters that are guiding us through it all, but their static nature makes the film drag at some of the most important moments.

After such raw, abrasive films, Mendes has produced the cinematic equivalent of the Mendoza line. It's simply not a film which will work up any strong opinions in either direction. You'll like the film. You'll like Krasinski and Rudolph. You'll like the melodic, folksy soundtrack. You'll like seeing Jim Gaffigan with a mustache. Chances are, you won't love anything about it.

1 comment:

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