Sunday, November 15, 2009
Away We Go ***
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph
Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan
Carmen Ejogo, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton
Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Schneider
Leaving behind his sterile formalism and working in a very relaxed style, Sam Mendes directs his first movie that feels refreshingly un-directed.
For someone that has specialized in the deconstruction of characters surrounded by pristine art direction and/or obvious camera moves, this tale of two people looking for a home, comes as a delightful surprise.
Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Rudolph) are a couple in their mid-thirties who are expecting their first child. They live in a cottage in the middle of nowhere where they indulge in practices they have carried on from their college days.
But this won't do for their baby. With that in mind they set on a journey across North America to find the perfect place to settle.
First they go to Burt's parents (played splendidly by O'Hara and Daniels) who reveal they are moving to Antwerp and are just starting to live the lives people in their twenties desire.
Then it's off to Phoenix where they are greeted by Verona's former boss Lily (Janney) and her husband (Gaffigan). Lily calls herself a nutcase and insists that her little daughter is a dyke while her husband listens tolerantly.
After their awkward meeting they take a detour to see Verona's little sister (Ejogo) in Tucson with whom the film takes a turn for the purely bittersweet as the sisters remember their deceased parents.
After this they go to Madison to see Burt's childhood friend Ellen (a loopier, and oddly sexier, than ever Gyllenhaal), a college professor, who with her husband Rod (Hamilton), has taken to New Age-y parental practices that include them having sex in front of the kids.
They run away from this all the way to Montreal where they encounter college friends Tom (Messina) and Munch (Lynksey) who seem to have the perfect married life, but actually have deep pain.
Last, but not least, they go to Miami to see Burt's brother Courtney (Schneider, great as usual) whose wife recently abandoned him, leaving him alone to raise his young daughter (Isabelle Moon Alexander).
After life shows them all the possible people they can become, conveniently arranged in cinematic moral hierarchy, they have to decide where to move and who they most want to resemble.
As if they'd forgotten to decide the destination of their journey before leaving, they might always end up finding themselves where they began.
Luckily for such an aimless road trip, Krasinski and Rudolph keep the movie grounded and fascinating at every moment.
Even if the supporting characters are comprised of archetypes, weirdos and plain indie quirky clichés, they make Burt and Verona real people.
More than that, they make them people who are genuinely in love with each other ("I will love you even if I can't find your vagina" says Burt in a way that sounds breathtaking), for whom the problems of finding "the one" are done and over with.
When most movies settle for making the discovery of love the ultimate goal of life, this movie reminds us there's more than that and that life is a process.
"We're not fuck ups" they say at the beginning of the movie and they spend the rest of it showing us people who might as well be.
This comparison isn't condescending because truth is anyone watching the movie will try to empathize with them and see that after all they are not that bad.
In a lovely scene Burt proposes to Verona for the umpteenth time (she doesn't think marriage is necessary). She rejects him once more, but to ease his fear she ends up making promises from a list Burt comes up with spontaneously.
Mendes' delicate direction here isn't intrusive, but we know we are witnessing a making of vows more significant than anything we'd see at a wedding.
This is the film's best thing, not the big scenes with lots of characters, but the small intimate moments when we see Burt and Verona cuddle and lie quietly next to each other.
When they have to travel by train, they lie awake in their bunk beds, Ellen Kuras' spare cinematography suggests a void, and before long Burt has moved down to be with his girl.
Musicalized with Alexi Murdoch's lovely songs and with art direction that feels lived in more than anything, "Away We Go" is the kind of movie that indie filmmakers would die to produce, but has none of the pretentious resolutions we find in them more and more.
Perhaps a strike of good luck, or mere exhaustion (as the film was shot during a break Mendes took from "Revolutionary Road") we might leave not knowing if Burt and Verona found what they seeked.
But Mendes has finally achieved maturity.