The morning before I saw Away We Go I spent some time in a dentist’s chair to get some cavities filled. I was more uncomfortable during some of the scenes of the film than I was getting my teeth drilled. Not that all of Away We Go is cringe-inducing, but there’s enough stain on it to keep it from being a worthwhile entertainment.
Written by the husband-wife team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, Away We Go carries much of what makes them distinctive in the literary world (I’ve never read anything by Vida, but I read Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and know him as one of the main voices in the McSweeney’s vein of literature). To be sure, Away We Go is full of a kind of arch sentimentality and self-aware preciousness that overwhelms any hope that this film can resonate with authenticity.
The story concerns a young unmarried couple, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph. She gets pregnant, and they decide they can live anywhere they want, so embark on a tour of some cities across North America, trying to find the perfect home. This odyssey is kicked off when Krasinski’s self-absorbed parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherina O’Hara) tell them they are moving to Antwerp before the baby is born. The characterizations of these two are pretty horrid, but they are mild compared to what’s to come.
Starting in Phoenix, the two visit an old colleague of Rudolph’s, Allison Janney. This is the first scene in which I wished I was back in the dentist’s chair. Janney is a fine actress, but what she is asked to do here is a crime. She plays a loud and obnoxious woman who openly insults her children and makes jokes about her sagging breasts that can be heard by anyone within fifty feet. She and her husband (Jim Gaffigan), who seems to be heavily medicated, take our couple to the dog track, a particularly bourgeois endeavor (we don’t see their home, which is no doubt decorated with prints by Thomas Kincaid).
If that scene wasn’t horrible enough, Krasinski and Rudolph next go to Madison, Wisconsin to visit a childhood friend of his. She is played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and here we have another example of a good actress forced to inhabit a character that only exists in the revenge fantasies of writers like Eggers and Vida. She plays a college professor, and when she’s introduced breast-feeding a toddler, we know we’re in for a litany of new-age quackery. Sure enough, she and her husband (Josh Hamilton) aren’t really people, they are a chance for the filmmakers to vent against every cliche of holistic, hippie behavior known to man, even taking it into the realm of the unbelievable, such as Gyllenhaal’s objection to the concept of strollers.
These scenes highlight a certain tone that really rankles me–the filmmaker looking back at his audience and winking at us, saying “People! Don’t you just hate ‘em? Aren’t you glad you’re normal like us?” There is such vitriol in these scenes that it’s hard to contemplate where it stems from, other than that Eggers or Vida must have had some horrible friends in their lives.
Not all of Away We Go is like this. There are some lovely scenes in the film, especially when we focus solely on Krasinski and Rudolph. I liked a scene early on when they huddle in bed, their electricity out, and Rudolph wonders whether they are fuck-ups. Then, toward the end of the film, after they are dealing with Krasinski’s brother, whose wife has left him, there is a poignant scene between the two of them on trampoline. But those scenes can’t stand the weight of the general misanthropy on display in the rest of the film. I realize that for two people in love sometimes it can feel like they are the only sane people on Earth, but the ugliness of some of the characters in this film is too much.
The film is directed by Sam Mendes, and this is certainly a departure from his more polished and slick films like American Beauty, Road to Perdition, and Revolutionary Road. Away We Go is casually presented, like a shaggy-dog story, and appears to have filmed on the cheap. The look fits the kind of rambling mentality, though.
Krasinski, as the hirsute boyfriend, is fine, though he is asked to use his expression of a mixture of bemusement and incredulity that he specializes in on The Office. Rudolph is very good, excellently potraying the confusion and panic a woman in her situation would be going through.
Finally, there are some logistical problems that nagged at me. Krasinski is an insurance salesman of some type, though he certainly doesn’t dress like one (I doubt any insurance company would hire someone who shows up for an interview in a tweed sport coat and Hush Puppies). At the outset, they are living in what looks like near poverty (they have a cardboard window) but have no trouble funding unlimited travel across the continent. And the resolution of the film seems to be a complete real-estate fantasy.
I can’t recommend Away We Go, though it does have some admirable elements. In an attempt to isolate just what it is that makes a home for two likeable people, it manages to savage entire classes of people.