Sunday, July 5, 2009

"Away We Go" Review

It's interesting to watch Sam Mendes's "Away We Go" only half a year after I washed the dry taste of "Revolutionary Road" out of my mouth.  In many ways, these are companion films, and part of me feels Mendes made Away We Go to liberate himself from the strict confines of Revolutionary Road.  If Road is about the breakdown of suburbia, about the illusion of family where all the relationships ultimately disintegrate under the weight of infidelity, lies, and emotional torment, "Away We Go" is about a couple about to begin a family with all the ideals still ahead of them.  They are displaced, virtually homeless, two soul-searchers united by a desire to settle down.

In truth, this is what all of Sam Mendes' films have been about.  American Beauty is another study of the collapse of suburbia through two refracted families that ends in violent and oddly cathartic tragedy.  Road to Perdition is about a hitman trying to protect his son from his violent life after the brutal murder of his wife and other child, while Jarhead examines the soldier as part of a family unit, where father figures and brother figures replace typical ideas of the family.  Partnered with Revolutionary Road, all these films are about the persistence (or lack thereof) of "the family" and how violence intersects that image in unexpected ways.

Away We Go doesn't have a hint of violence, but it is about family.  John Krasinski ("The Office") and Maya Rudolph ("SNL") star as Bert and Verona, two self-employed, independent thirty-somethings who are about to have a child out of marriage.  When Bert's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara in wonderful cameos) announce plans to move to Belgium just before the baby's birth, Bert and Verona take off on their own journey to find the perfect home for their family.

Along the way they meet friends and family in different cities.  These characters, each with their own accessible quirks, are meant to represent different ideas of parenting and of lifestyles.  The strength of the screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida is that they are sure to criticize this quirkiness, keep it at arm's length, and not let it overtake their film.  With a sharp eye for language and human frailty, Eggers and Vida craft Bert and Verona into lived-in characters, and as the film goes on the superficial humor fades from quirky wordplay to a defense mechanism each character employs to cover up deeper tragedy that, you guessed it, relates back to tensions and issues from family problems.

Krasinski and Rudolph are luminous, each giving smart nuance to their relationship.  Mendes gets the roll of an eye, the smirk of a lip, and the touch of a hand just right.  If there is a flaw to "Away We Go," it is its optimism.  We never doubt the two characters are in love, that their love is real, or that their family will work.  We don't doubt it because we believe they don't, either.  It is, I think, more about FAITH than family.  It is an optimistic, undeniably heartwarming film.

The soft camera work from DP Ellen Kuras and calm edits from Sarah Flack allow the director's sense of perfectionism to flourish, as motion in the cutting feels exquisitely timed and lighting in the shots feels wonderfully calibrated.  But unlike other Mendes projects, where he has been criticized for being too controlling of his frame (I in fact criticized him of this in Revolutionary Road), he seems to view Away We Go as an opportunity to liberate himself.

By relaxing his aesthetic, he lets his screenwriters and actors do a lot of the hat tricks.  "Away We Go" is a calm, low-key, and warm film, one whose final impact is just short of beautiful. 

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