June 12, 2009

REVIEW: Away We Go (B)

(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


  1. Oh, Away We Go, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways...

    Thank goodness for Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski...or maybe curse them because they're about the only things that kept me from walking out of this movie and I never do that.

    The shifts from comedy to drama that didn't bother you really rubbed me the wrong way and I'm really tired of Mendes' sneering attitude about the US. It's like when you have a crazy drunk uncle, it's ok for members of the family to make fun of him, but when someone from the outside does it, it stops being cool really quickly.

    Nevertheless, this is a sharp review. Well done.

  2. Ha, yeah I need to read your review now that I'm done, thanks.

    And I guess I never really put two and two together about Mendes' disdain for American culture. It's true - it's one thing to simply make a film set here, but another to fashion it as an indictment of the culture (American Beauty). Although to be fair, Mendes hasn't actually written any of these films.

    But yeah, as you can see I was won over almost entirely by Krasinski, Rudolph and Co.

  3. Great piece, Daniel. I enjoyed reading your reaction.

    I've decided not to review this one. I think I just dislike Sam Mendes, and it's time for me to admit it. Or something, I don't know. Anyway, you and Craig do a fine job analyzing this at your respective websites.

    Mendes rubs me the wrong way. Have I ever said that before? :-)

  4. Oh yeah, I also just wanted to say... wow. This place has changed. What a renovation.

  5. Ha, yes I know you're in the anti-American Beauty camp for starters (where I've been known to pitch a tent), but you can't be all that negative on the guy if you saw both this and Revolutionary Road, right?

    It's the most flawed of those three, but carrying a lighter load I think it's the most charming of the three as well. For what it's worth I also think Mendes does great work at getting terrific performances from his casts.

    And yeah, welcome back to the new digs. It may still be evolving, but I'm becoming much more comfortable with it. Especially my eye.

  6. http://www.boxofficeprophets.com/column/index.cfm?columnID=11746&cmin=10&columnpage=3

    'away we go' made the top 10.despite the tiny theatre count.

  7. "One of the things I've never understood about screenwriting is the propensity for unrealistically realistic character details."

    In one sentence you've nailed why I hate so many movies every year. This one is playing down the street right now, and I almost saw it, but my near contempt for Mendes kept me.

  8. Thanks for that glim - a 93% jump at the box office?! That's nuts. And I was also surprised at the small number of theaters it's playing in, considering the range of the marketing campaign.

    Chuck, in hindsight maybe I shouldn't have given it as much of a pass for that unpardonable sin. I don't know the first thing about screenwriting or story development, but it really drives me nuts when writers try to make characters "real" by giving them bizarre backstories or wacky professions. I suppose it allows for more humorous dialogue (lots of jokes are built around both of their jobs in Away We Go), but it definitely detracts from my ability to relate to these people.

    Nevertheless I'd be interested to hear your take on it, as critical as it might be.

  9. I'll chime in.

    It's most often the simplest things that make for the best common sense. "Everything in moderation." "Treat others as you'd like to be treated." Another one I say all of the time: "The grass is always greener."

    It's funny, but when movies don't give us these sorts of details, we harp on them for not paying enough attention to "character," and yet here you have one that doles out these things and that's worthy of a berating? Color me confused.

    It's one thing to dislike a film (like this one) for being overly quirky, as they are wont to be. But c'mon - the profession is too much for you? Really? It was barely mentioned!

    I'd much rather save what disdain I had for Away We Go on the circular, lazy storytelling and questions like "Where did these 'poor' people get the money to go on a long vacation from?"

  10. I still need to read your review of this.

    But I'll try to clarify: it's not so much that I don't want any character details at all, or that real people don't have quirks here and there, but I just want details and quirks that I can believe. I mean really, as entertaining as it was I can't imagine anybody could watch Away We Go and say, "Oh yeah, I totally know that person, and that person, and that person", and so on.

    The characters just seemed to be written around the story, not the other way around. As an alternative I would offer something like The Wrestler. Here's a guy, here's what he's like (and unlike Away We Go, much is observed about the character and not as much has to be spelled out through weird dialogue), and here's a slice of his life during this period. I felt like I really bought the existence of Randy the Ram completely. That may have a lot to with Rourke, but even despite my gushing over the acting here, the people were still acting in thinly developed roles. The Wrestler has less of a story, but in my opinion it offers a much better look at its characters lives.

    So yeah, make Away We Go less about the wacky parents shooting off to Belgium and the weird insurance job where he has to lie about his age. Stuff like that comes off to me like lazy writing, or overwriting - in an effort to create a "unique character" you just end up making them totally unrealistic (reminds me of Juno).

    I say ditch the cliched beat-up Volvo (or whatever they were driving) and come up with some new ways for us to identify and relate to these characters. Maybe they drive a new car but they run out of gas or they don't know how to change a tire or something, I don't know - stuff that actually happens to people.

    And your question about money goes to my point, I think. It's not that they were necessarily poor - but we knew nothing about their work, so it seemed like it. Eggers and his wife (thinking story first, remember) were probably like, "Hmm, we can't make them unemployed, but we have to give them jobs that they can do on their schedule, on the road, etc. Yes, let's make her a medical textbook artist - nobody knows anything about that and we can build some humor out of it."

    Wow, this was a long comment. See what happens when I don't write for a week - I had to get my fingers working again.


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