Likable TV actors Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski stress their charm to the limit in Away We Go. As Verona and Burt, an unmarried, mixed-race couple expecting their first child, Rudolph’s warm coloring and freckly, smiling placidity contrasts Krasinki’s lanky, unfazed, big-boy goofiness. They represent an Obama-era ideal, born of the media’s predominant middle-class tenets: casual affluence, social mobility and the amazing self-possession of…TV stars.
Verona and Burt travel the country, visiting friends and relatives just to figure out how/where they want to live. It’s an indie update of a 1970s road movie; but where American picaresques like Five Easy Pieces, California Split, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, even a trifle like the Goldie Hawn-Burt Reynolds Best of Friends were about self-examination, Away We Go shows the peculiar effect of Internet-era self-involvement: Nicey-nice Verona and Burt reveal how superior they are to every screwed-up American they encounter.
Rudolph and Krasinki may be more appealing than Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy who incarnated almost similar young-and-elite vanity in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset; yet Hawke and Delpy felt more real in their infuriating, overeducated narcissism. They had film-actor depth, instead of Rudolph-Krasinski’s deeply superficial TV-Q, and they seemed self-sufficient in their Hoboken/Williamsburg cocoon (aka Paris). Each stop on Verona and Burt’s excursion (Phoenix, Tucson, Madison, Montreal, Miami) offers glib social critique—and then none: They arrive at a place of luxurious privilege that is their unquestioned bourgeois legacy. Never showcasing different time zones or political lifestyles, as in David O. Russell’s road film Flirting With Disaster, this solipsistic tour recoils from instances of troubled intimacy and unfulfilled parenthood. Mild-mannered Verona eventually asks the key navel-gazer, “Are we nuts?” It’s judgment of others via blogger sensibility.
Away We Go was written by McSweeney’s/The Believer duo Dave Eggers and his wife Vendela Vida. Too bad they’re not TV buffs as the title, recalling Jackie Gleason’s motto, suggests. But Eggers and Vida don’t reference Gleason’s The Honeymooners, one of TV’s perfect sitcoms with its classically tense/loving portrait of marriage. They’re post-marriage, yet they try reinventing that same wheel on which their friends and relatives spin. It’s a pointlessly self-satisfying effort and wanly narcissistic—which makes it less fresh than Hawke and Delpy’s egotism. Eggers and Vida seem unaware that their quandary is age-old and has become formulaic, despite tossing in snarky class ironies (Verona earns a living drawing medical casualty illustrations, Burt fakes macho bonhomie with his insurance clients).
Irony has become a blight on filmmaking, particularly for this period of blurred indie-mainstream methods. Uncritical audiences—who feel either superior or susceptible—can’t distinguish between condescension and flattery. That’s where slick director Sam Mendes comes in. Mendes takes Eggers’ and Vida’s neo-sitcom script and gives it his usual cynical gloss of Irony. Verona’s smarter-than-thou, “Are we nuts?” follows right behind Mendes’ mendacious Revolutionary Road—failed Oscar bait that used the cliché of 1950s suburban marriage to appeal to contemporary American self-hatred. Scene by scene, Away We Go is equally phony: from a xenophobe declaring, “If this country’s shit, everyone else is just the flies on our shit,” to cameo appearances by Catherine O’Hara, Alison Janney, Paul Schneider and Carmen Ejogo that are horrendously overwrought in Mendes’ American Beauty mode.
After several expensive box-office disasters, Mendes has yet to renew himself in indieland. Away We Go is as calculated as any summer tentpole blockbuster. Mendes sets out to prove: “I can do a Juno, too!” Dialogue is so over-bright it could have been written by Diablo Cody (“He’s about to have a baby that might have three hands or a shovel for a head, and all he can think about is my boobs.”). Compositions are cunning and unrealistic, like Verona and Burt staying mid-distance on an airport people-mover or Burt lying on a trampoline near a swimming pool in the backyard of a pink house. Plus, the twee guitar-plucking score nags at your emotions.
All this reflects the influence of indie crap like Juno, Lars and the Real Girl, The Savages—movies designed to make audiences feel smart. Verona’s specious childhood monologue about hanging oranges and pineapples from trees is part of this, and so is her “Mr. Tambourine Man” lullaby. We’re given Dylanolatry where a lullaby from The Pixies, The Smiths, Nirvana or De La Soul would convey a genuine modern quest for relief. Verona’s lapse back into the security of her boomer parents’ nostalgia shows Eggers solicits an NPR audience and standard class sentiments. British Mendes seems inured to such cultural distinctions as he continues his career of specious American exposés. Whether Mendes flatters American cynicism or sentimentality, it’s equally fake.
Away We Go
Directed by Sam Mendes
Runtime: 98 min.
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