DVD Release Date:  September 29, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  June 26, 2009
Rating:  R (for strong language and sexual situations)
Genre:  Dramedy
Run Time:  98 min.
Directors:  Sam Mendes
Cast:  Maya Rudolph, John Krazinski, Jeff Daniels, Catherine O'Hara, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton

Author Dave Eggers established the publishing craze for tragi-comic memoirs with his Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  Unfortunately, only the first half of that title could be used to describe his debut screenplay—not for its emotional resonance but rather its ineffectiveness.

Written along with his wife Vendela Via, this story of first-time parents looking for a place to call home delivers the surface style Eggers is known for-quirky characters, snarky dialogue, with a melancholic bent—but lacks the depth that made him a literary icon.  Certainly the execution by director Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road, Road to Perdition, American Beauty) bears part of the burden, and while his guidance is certainly found wanting, the mood Mendes sets largely masks what is a surprisingly superficial and downright absurd concoction.

Unmarried, in their early 30s and living in a glorified shack out in the country, Burt Farlander and Verona De Tessant (John Krasinski of The Office and Saturday Night Live alum Maya Rudolph) are expecting their first child together.  The combination of a humble social status and impending parenthood has left them feeling like failures.  They long for a fresh start and possibly even a move, not only to create a healthy home environment for their child (and hopefully brood of children) but to also be good examples worth aspiring to.

As Verona approaches the end of her second trimester, the couple decides to go on a cross-country journey in search of the perfect city, community and home to plant their roots—to find the place that truly fits them.  The guiding structure for their travels is to visit various cities where friends and family have found happiness, with the hope of discovering that one place meant just for them.

This premise certainly holds the promise of exploring something substantial, so it's a letdown to discover how Eggers, Via and Mendes reduce everything to the situational.  Each couple they visit—beginning with Burt's hometown parents, then Verona's friend in Phoenix, and on and on—is exponentially bizarre.  They are real-life cartoons played for gags and laughs that have no orientation in reality.  With the exception of Verona's sister, each stop gets weirder and weirder (including a mother who still breast-feeds her toddlers, and that's not the worst thing she does) to the point you have to wonder how any of these people—who turn off and even repulse Burt and Verona—were friends to begin with.  The script is so lazily focused on its too-clever-by-half eccentricities that it exercises no effort to make it believable.

The problem is that it wants us to believe.  It wants us to buy into this journey, emotionally invest in this couple (and their struggle between a disaffected present and dreams for a future) and be moved by it all, but it feebly provides only standard moments of yearning tagged on the end of each outlandish episode—and even those earnestly tender scenes often hinge on generic angst we've seen before (Verona's self-conscious to how fat she's becoming, they worry if they'll be good parents or not, et al.).

Sam Mendes has made a career out of elevating bad scripts, and Away We Go certainly extends that streak. His instincts to create appropriate visual texture and pacing are his strengths, his ability with actors less so (a long background in theater still adversely affects his approach to performances on the screen), and he seems virtually tone-deaf toward how to guide a script to the full potential of its premise (slavishly adhering to the text as one would in theater rather than molding the elements until it all rings true).  Simply put, he understands cinematic language but not cinematic realism.

One could even suspect that Mendes gets an odd thrill in making bad material better than it is; here, the script feels like an over-the-top studio rom-com with the infamous legacy of a disposable rental.  Such an assumption would be giving him too much credit, though.  Indeed, even regarding his aesthetic strengths, Mendes largely relies on a hipster acoustic soundtrack from new folk artist Alexi Murdoch to set the proper indie-tone. It's a superb stroke of smoke-and-mirrors, but don't be fooled—it's the music creating whatever emotional pull you feel here, not the actual core elements of story, character or theme.

As the wayward couple-cum-parents, Maya Rudolph is more impressive than John Krazinski (who seems stuck in the play-the-joke rut common to TV actors).  Rudolph isn't entirely successful, either (and with what she's saddled with, who could be?), but she wisely underplays the clichéd emotional basket case Verona is written to be.  And compared to the broad, hapless caricatures that comprise the supporting cast (despite the impressive ensemble), she's virtually in Method-mode. In that sense, Rudolph is a revelation simply waiting for the proper "prophetic" material.

Nothing more than a sequential collection of contrivances, the trajectory of the narrative is predictable, ham-fisted, and occasionally offensive (both morally and intellectually).  Other elements—such as Verona's adamant objection to marriage despite the joint declarations of love and desire for a large family—simply make no sense.  Scripted platitudes, exchanges, revelations, and one climactic monologue short-change any notion of complexity, making growth metered-out plot-points rather than ongoing character development. 

Away We Go does tap into some emotional truths, but there's nothing authentic about its practical reality.  Even the final destination is an enormous cheat.  Normal people—ANY people—don't reach epiphanies this way, or this easily, in real life; only in The Movies.  For one that's about lives changed, it's ironic that this film won't change the lives of anyone who watches it.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  Alcohol is occasionally consumed, with instances of mild inebriation. 
  • Language/Profanity:  Full range of profanities used, even in the presence of children, including crass sexual references (lewd comments as well as the "V" word for the female genitalia on more than one occasion, and other frank descriptions of genitals) and the LORD'S name used in vain. 
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  The aforementioned lewd/sexual dialogue, which is used throughout (though not constantly).  Husband performs oral sex with wife under the covers.  A mom breast-feeds toddlers.  A couple discusses how their entire family sleeps together, and that the couple has sex while the children are in bed.  A painting of female genitalia is seen.  A woman performs a provocative pole dance, but remains clothed.
  • Violence/Other:  Only momentary emotional clashes that involve heated confrontations.

 
Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com or click here.  You can also subscribe to "Steelehouse Podcast" through iTunes.