What a pleasure to see a couple who genuinely love each other in a movie – and what a surprise to see them in a movie directed by Sam Mendes.
In bitter, shallow dramas such as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, Mendes has depicted relationships, especially marriage, as a particularly painful circle of hell. (And that last picture starred Kate Winslet, his wife!)
Away We Go, Mendes’ latest, is refreshingly different in a number of ways. It’s not only that the film focuses on a well-adjusted (if peculiar) couple who are unquestionably devoted to each other. It’s that the entire picture is light, airy, loose. Unlike any previous Mendes movie, it breathes.
Perhaps it was the screenplay by married novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida that coaxed Mendes out of his carefully controlled shell. Away We Go has the sort of intimate authenticity that comes from first-hand experience and is more easily conjured on the page than the big screen.
The movie stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Burt and Verona, a longtime (though not married) couple whose bohemian rhapsody is interrupted when she becomes pregnant. They embrace the news, though she soon begins to wonder, “Do I have to be this uncool for the rest of my life?”
When Burt’s parents – the couple’s only nearby connection – announce they are suddenly moving out of the country, they realize that nothing is keeping them in their lonely, run-down Colorado shack. And so they hit the road visiting friends and relatives across the country in search of the most desirable location to raise their child.
Of course, they eventually understand that no one place will make them perfect parents – that it’s going to take more than the right zip code for them to pull this off. The enjoyment of Away We Go comes in watching them come to terms with the enormity of impending parenthood, taking a deep breath and plunging ahead.
Along their journey, they mostly learn what not to do. One visit reunites Verona with a former coworker (Allison Janney) who may actually be the worst mother in the world (she asks her tween daughter to show them her butch walk).
Another stop introduces them to the seemingly idyllic home created by a pair of former friends (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) who have adopted a passel of kids. A joyful grownups’ night out, though, takes a sorrowful turn, and Burt and Verona realize that even close, grounded couples are subject to real pain.
Consistently lightening the mood is Krasinski, from television’s “The Office.” His Burt is a dippy delight who thinks building a kiln is a sensible way to prepare for a baby’s arrival.
Yet it’s Rudolph, a “Saturday Night Live” player who has appeared in movies here and there, who keeps the movie from floating off into the quirky ether. Just when you get a bit uncomfortable with the couple’s cutesy eccentricities, she takes a deep breath and whispers, “I think we might be @!*#-ups.” If women glow when they’re pregnant, Verona glows with uncertainty.
Add musing music by Alexi Murdoch and you have a quiet, thoughtful movie with its own distinct vibe.
It’s certainly a new vibe for Mendes. Even the director’s talented eye for framing is finally used for something new: loveliness.
There is an early shot of Burt and Verona sharing a kiss along the side of the road – they’re in the far left corner of the frame, while wildflowers peek up from the lower right – that wouldn’t have even made it onto American Beauty’s cutting-room floor.
Could it be that Sam Mendes is happy after all?