What is it with Sam Mendes and his fascination with the American family and its psyche? Both American Beauty, for which the British director won his Oscar, and Revolutionary Road, which starred his wife, Kate Winslet, looked at the seamy underbelly of suburbia, while Jarhead and Road to Perdition examined the different ways in which we deal with violence within our various family units. Mendes is back with his second movie in six months, this time his first comedy, Away We Go. He's teamed up with screenwriter and literary rock star Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the script with his novelist wife, Vendela Vida, for this take on how the American family gets started.
Having kids is tough. If you have them, there's no more important thing in your life—and if there is, there's something wrong with you. If you've never been through it, pregnancy is challenging, scary and, above all, imminent.Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are knocked up, and they've just learned Burt's parents (played wonderfully by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) will be in Belgium during the first two years of their child's life. So they hit the road, visiting friends and family across the continent, looking for a new place to live and parenting techniques to emulate.
What Away We Go gets right is the certainty that when you're going through this enormous life transition, there's no one who can really convey what you're in for. All the clichés are true—you can't possibly know what it's really like to have kids until you have them. Parenting is a giant muddle of figuring out the best way to make things work. This movie has touches that are warm, sincere and funny, which is what we've come to expect from Eggers, founder of McSweeny's and author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
The problem is that the film's message—everyone works it out as they go along—is told in such ham-handed fashion (not something we expect from Eggers). Everyone Burt and Verona turn to is basically unrealistically messed up. Burt's parents are entirely self-absorbed, while the couple they visit in Arizona (Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan) are wretched, disengaged parents. Maggie Gyllenhaal's sensitive new-age women's studies professor is even worse, and their friends in Montreal have adopted a rainbow-coalition menagerie to make up for their inability to breed. When Away We Go feels real, it works, but it frequently feels forced.
The movie's other big problem is Krasinski. No, he isn't bad. But as Jim on the American version of The Office, he's sweet, charming, goofy and exceedingly appealing. In Away We Go, he is sweet, he is charming, he is goofy. But he isn't Jim. That character, which has been developed and nuanced over five years of the show, has yet to translate to the big screen. Still, Krasinski has a nice chemistry with Rudolph, who offers a range and depth that has heretofore been hidden. Her Verona lost her parents while in college, and she now contemplates starting a family despite the way her own was tragically fractured.
Away We Go isn't bad, but it feels like several movies cobbled into one. There's the wacky comedy, the sweet life-transition movie and the road-trip flick. As Burt and Verona continue their fact-finding mission, it's clear they'll be better parents than all the families they drop in on. Sure, parenting is partly an exercise in learning what not to do, but you also need the experience and expertise of the people in your lives. Burt and Verona don't really have folks like that, yet it's obvious they'll be great parents. Unfortunately for this movie, that's not usually how it works.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.