It's only the end of June but I have summer movie fatigue already.
Not that it's been a bad summer. There have been some very enjoyable movies, like "Up," "Star Trek" and "The Hangover." But while everyone was plunking down their cash to help "Transformers 2" rake up a $200M opening weekend, I found myself exhausted by the mere prospect of sitting in a theater for 2 1/2 hours watching computer generated creatures wreak havoc (maybe I'm growing up, or maybe I'm just weary after "Wolverine" and "Terminator Salvation.")
Instead of seeing Optimus and Megatron duke it out, I decided to check out the small indie "Away We Go," starring John Krasinski ("The Office") and Maya Rudolph ("Saturday Night Live.") And I was reminded that sometimes the best summer surprises are the quiet, gentle films that actually take the time to tell stories about characters that audiences can enjoy spending time with.
The actors portray Burt and Verona, a couple in their mid-30s anticipating their first child. When they learn that Burt's parents (Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) are moving to Belgium for two years, they take advantage of their untethered status (Verona's parents are dead) and journey cross country to find a place to raise their family. Along the way they encounter Verona's tacky, boorish old boss and her husband (Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan), Burt's New Age cousin (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and others; each family showcases the fears that Burt and Verona have about raising their children--will they fall out of love? Love the kids too much? And the couple, who spends much of the film wondering if they are screw ups, begin to realize that maybe no one has life figure out; maybe the best thing people can do is just do the best they can with the life they're given.
The plot really doesn't offer much in the way of actual structure. It's episodic and a bit meandering and never really does offer much in the way of a challenge for Burt and Verona. But I was thankful for that, particularly given the penchant of director Sam Mendes to resort to melodrama in some of his other examinations of the American family, in "American Beauty" and "Revolutionary Road." Mendes simply allows Burt and Verona to encounter these other characters and then move on, sometimes a bit more grateful that they have things figured out and sometimes a bit concerned about whether they'll be able to navigate the unfairness and complexities of life.
Some critics have complained that Burt and Verona come off as a bit unlikable and smarmy, but I couldn't disagree more. Krasinski and Rudolph each shine here in turns that reveal depths I never would have expected from them given their television work. Rudolph, in particular, if funny, touching and radiant as Verona. It could be argued that Krasinski is playing a bearded and slightly more intelligent version of Jim Halpert, but I think that is more from the fact that, like his "Office" character, Krasinski is playing a genuinely good and likable guy.
The first scene of the movie, which could be played as crass and quirky, actually sets the tone for these characters, establishing the two characteristics that will carry them through their journey: they are very smart and well-read and very much in love. As they discuss where to raise their daughter, it's obvious they've thought it out--Burt wants to be the father who "cobbles" (he means whittles) and wants his daughter to have a "Huck Finn upbringing." And Verona, still hurting from the loss of her parents, wants to be the best mother she can be. It's obvious they've read the books and are prepared to be good parents...but now they have to ask whether all that preparation has truly made them ready. Are they screw ups as the move into this phase of life? How can they raise a child when they don't have life figured out themselves?
Mendes has dealt so regularly with broken families (it could be argued that everying he's done, from "American Beauty" to "Road to Perdiion" to "Jarhead" to "Revolutionary Road" is about broken, scarred families) that it's refreshing to see that he can tell a story about a couple who is happily and passionately in love. Verona comments that the baby's heart rate is low because they never fight; that leads not to a predictable blowout but to a series of very funny gags in which Burt tries to pick nonsense fights out of nowhere. There's never a doubt in our mind that, despite the bumps in the road, that Burt and Verona will turn out okay. The question of marriage comes up but Mendes wisely doesn't build to a predictable engagement or ceremony, instead prefering to have a private, quiet moment on a trampoline that may not be legally-binding but leaves no doubt in our minds as to the commitment of this couple.
Some have also complained that Burt and Verona are also condescending, thinking they're better off than everyone else they come across. But you know what--they ARE better than most the people they come across. Burt's parents are self-absored prats who only care about their own experiences, not their soon-to-be-born grandaughter. Verona's ex-boss and her husband are boorish, loud, tacky and miserable, they don't care about their kids and simply are just content to let things fall apart because, in their mind, everyone ends up screwed up in the end. And Burt's cousin is so flighty and mystical, wrapped up in her identity as a mother, that it takes on creepy proportions.
Let it be said, though, that these scenes never come across as dark or depressing but very very funny. Daniels and O'Hara steal their scenes right out from under Rudolph and Krasinski and Janney and Gaffigan do the same just ten minutes later. I was a bit worried that Krasinski and Rudolph may simply take a back seat to the shenanigans of these supporting actors, but there's a scene with Gyllenhaal's character over a family dinner (Mendes' specialty is awkward family dinner) that is both funny and triumphant for Krasinski. The film then takes off to Montreal and then Miami, for two interludes that are surprisingly touching and heartfelt.
The looser style is a nice fit for Mendes, a skilled director whose staging often seems to outshine his cast (the rain actually is what I remember from "Road to Perdition," despite fantastic work by Tom Hanks and Paul Newman). It allows him to focus on the characters and allow them room to breathe and play and allows him to step into the background as a storyteller. I doubt we'll see this aesthetic become a regular for him, but it's a nice fit.
I find that it's hard to talk about this movie objectively. Surely some will see it who will be put off by its quirkiness or meandering structure. And they may have a point; it's not a perfect movie.
But sometimes something just hits me at the right moment. As I prepare to hit 30 in a month, I find that I'm wrestling with some of the same questions as Burt and Verona. I don't have a kid on the way, but there is that question whether or not I'm a screw-up and that fear of turning into those I've seen around me, who either have grown cynical or lost touch with reality. And there's the fear that the unfairness of life or others may derail me and cause me to lose hope.
But Burt and Verona make me smile and make me realize that there's also the option to be a good, decent person. They are two characters I enjoyed spending time with, loved seeing them to the end of their journey (and releaved that Mendes didn't throw in any of his typical last-minute devastations) and I genuinely want the best for them.
I don't think I can say the same about Optimus Prime and Megatron.
- ► 2010 (58)