(Away We Go opens today at the Landmark Uptown Cinema)One of the things I've never understood about screenwriting is the propensity for unrealistically realistic character details. In Away We Go, for example, why must Verona (Maya Rudolph) be a medical textbook diagram artist? Why can't she simply be a regular artist, or a writer, or a consultant - something that people actually do in real life?
No matter - Away We Go isn't really about real life, but about the search for the "real life" that Verona and Burt (again, unnecessarily uncommon names?) think is waiting for them as they reach their mid-30's. Preparing for the birth of their first child, the couple bounces from coast to coast, ostensibly in search for the the perfect city to raise a family, but really because they don't know what else to do.
They are obsessed with the family of their future and the families of their individual pasts, never considering what might be there for them in the present. In searching for the "truest" versions of themselves they look out the window instead of in the mirror, and to that end Away We Go will probably hit home for many people, particularly those in the 25-35 year-old demographic that have been waiting for a sequel to Garden State (that the films share a similar soundtrack cannot be a coincidence).
On this soul searching journey, however, director Sam Mendes appears to lose his way. I think he's at his best in a static setting (e.g., Revolutionary Road, Jarhead, Road to Perdition) where he can develop atmosphere and character and an overwhelmingly bleak mood. Here, husband-and-wife screenwriters and celebrated novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida have him working on the fly, desperately trying to maintain the same semblance of character from city to city. Alas, it doesn't quite work, and the running tactic ends up being scenes of promisy pillow talk between Verona and Burt (John Krasinski) at each stop on the road.
What surprisingly does work is the back-and-forth between quirky comedy and punch-to-the-gut, plaintively serious drama - like Mendes' American Beauty but not nearly as smug. Sure, it feels like it was designed as an emotional rollercoaster ride, but that's mostly true of life, even if our interactions with real people aren't quite always as fleeting. There's almost no continuity in their journey and we're often here and gone with thinly developed, easily abandoned characters.
Honestly, as far as adorable indies go you're better off with a little more substance and self-awareness from something like Medicine for Melancholy.
All that being said, and in spite of its identity crisis, Away We Go somehow, impossibly ended up winning me over, almost entirely due to the strong acting. Maya Rudolph was always a favorite cast member of mine on "SNL" and I was glad to see that her dramatic range has a lot of potential for future films. And maybe because I don't watch "The Office", Krasinski proved me wrong in thinking that he doesn't have much depth. The character of Burt appears to be tailor-made for him (or Zach Braff), but he wears it well. Add in a howlingly funny few minutes from Allison Janney, a disappointingly tired but still terrific performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and a great piece of acting by Chris Messina (who was also fantastic in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and it's easy to overlook all of those flaws in the story. In fact, with Jeff Daniels, Catherine O'Hara, and Jim Gaffigan, this might be best work by an ensemble cast in 2009 so far.
Is that enough to win you over? Maybe not. A wrong character here or one too many indie-folk songs there might have spelled doom for my experience with Away We Go, but in the end it was a charming enough reminder of the well-worn cliché that life's a journey, not a destination.
Writing - 7
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 4
Social Significance - 5
Total: 42/50= 84% = B