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Away We Go (Sam Mendes, 2009)


     Just when you think its characters couldn’t grow more self-absorbed, Away We Go’s Verona (Maya Rudolph) whines to her boyfriend Burt (John Krasinski) that no one else in the world is in love like they are. It’s their reaction to an afternoon spent with purported friends, who are deemed foul-mouthed, cynical, and a bit too blunt for their delicate sensibilities. In their presence, Verona and Burt passive-aggressively posit criticisms as suggestions, then slink away without making their true feelings known. Back in their hotel room, and in the varied bedrooms they occupy throughout the course of the film, they fester in each other’s resentment toward the outside world. Such solipsism is the norm in director Sam Mendes’ latest venture into suburban anomie. Based on a script by lit-hipster spouses Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, Away We Go promises heart-on-the-sleeve frankness. Its opening scene features intimate relationship banter, the distasteful discovery of a pregnancy, and oral sex. Instead, it delivers a jaundiced look at a cross-section of modern America. Most of the country, it seems, does not meet the standards of a few self-confessed “fuck-ups”.


     Away We Go’s plot details the couple’s search for an ideal home, in which they hope to raise their incoming baby. The bulk of the narrative sees them traveling far and wide, visiting and judging friends and family alike. By its nature, the screenplay is somewhat schematic, but this feeling is exacerbated by the nightmarish family units that greet them in each destination. Pain and inadequacy are everywhere they look (except, of course, when they look at each other). Each of the groups that they visit is in crisis, besieged by misery and eccentricity.


     One supposes that this superiority complex is designed to flatter the audience, making them feel “normal”, like Burt and Verona. Instead it alienates anyone with a healthy worldview. Verona and Burt’s self-absorbtion is repulsive. Mendes’ previous film, Revolutionary Road, was a failure, both as Oscar bait and as satisfying drama, but at least it had the sense to recognize that its fundamentally flawed protagonists’ search for a home that would solve all of their problems was fruitless. When that couple argued, we could at least begin to sense that they were painfully aware of their own failings. Here, Mendes crawls with his “heroes”, right up their own asses, and schemes to deny any good in the outside world.


     Away We Go quickly settles into a pattern in which Burt and Verona’s hopes are dashed at every step. Its repetitive observations of inadequacy in others result in satire that makes even a glib film such as Juno seem incisive (a braver, funnier film would have skewed the prospective parents’ paranoia). One supposes that Burt and Verona’s twee observations and easy dismissals of personal shortcomings are supposed to prove collectively endearing, but Mendes does nothing to explain their intrinsic vapidity or own foibles. Instead, the director overworks himself, undermining through compositional showiness whatever reality is achieved by his casting and his actors’ performances. These people are supposed to seem real, yet they banter like sitcom characters and are characterized through labored quirk. Verona staples their itinerary inside Burt’s jacket. They have their climactic heart to heart (which by all rights should have been the film's concluding scene), on a trampoline. To seem profound, they stare wordlessly into the distance.


     This exact ground was covered, with none of this smug condescension, in David O. Russell’s mid-‘90s screwball comedy Flirting With Disaster. That movie found some warmth for even its wackiest viewpoints, making its pan-American survey both incisive and endearing. Away We Go is simply smug and shallow. It explains that the world is broken and dares you to agree that it’s honest. It promises engagement, but delivers only retrenchment. When Verona and Burt retreat back to the womb at the end of the film, Mendes and his screenwriters prove that they had nothing to say about the country. They merely wanted to snipe at outsiders from the safety of home.



Jeremy Heilman