Words On Film: Away We Go
The "traveling and meeting quirky, over-the-top people through the eyes of an every-person/every-couple" genre has been a major trend in independent film. Concept films where "normal" people confront a nest of idiosyncratic token characters mark films like I Heart Huckabees and Garden State with solid success. The recent Sam Mendes release Away We Go has been marketed as a heartwarming, indie dramedy to be carried by a strong and diverse cast. The film features John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph in the lead roles, with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeff Daniels and Jim Gaffigan (among others) bringing the support. Dave Eggers, of McSweeneys fame and his wife Vendela Vida penned the story. All of these parts should sum to an honest, thoughtful film experience, but Away We Go is littered with near misses.
Krasinski and Rudolph play a couple who introduce themselves via a moment of near cunnilingus that tips off Krasinski (by taste) that his longtime girlfriend is pregnant. The dialogue feels immediately too indie-hip to be accessible, and the pacing in the first scenes is clunky as if we were driving a bus around a sports car test track. The couple then goes to visit Krasinski's parents played by Daniels and Catherine O'Hara. O'Hara's character is obnoxiously step-mothery, but Daniels is genuinely delightful. A great nod to the writers and Mendes is a subtle moment where Daniels and Krasinski both rub the bridges of their nose when O'Hara begins ranting about Rudolph's pregnancy. It shows a clear familial connection and is one of the most honest moments in the film.
When the lead couple finds out that Daniels and O'Hara are moving away, and won't be around for the first years of the baby's life (a sad moment because Daniels will not be seen again) they set out on a short tour of the US and Canada to find the place where they want to raise their family. They hit points in Arizona, meeting an awful Allison Janney character (not her fault, she's just stuck playing an atrocious, mean beyond mean woman) and a beat-down completely leashed and unfunny Gaffigan (tragic!). Then to Rudolph's sister in Tucson, which has one of the few genuinely laugh-out-loud scenes in the film. The couple heads to Montreal, and Wisconsin and on to Florida before finally settling on a place to live that seems sudden, simple, and contrived (as if they needed an ending to a meandering road trip and the right destination dropped in their laps).
The film is not a total loss, of course. Krasinski is excellent, and effectively removes himself from his character on The Office. There is a great, hilarious scene when his character Burt takes a genuine jab at Gyllenhaal's hippie/new-ager stereotype. The problem for me is that the film seems to hate its female characters. Despite Rudolph being an intelligent artist, disinterested in marriage because "what's the point?" she is largely secondary and driven by fear about her attractiveness. She ultimately takes a back seat to Krasinski, waiting for him to act to drive the plot. The other women in the film, O'Hara, Janney, Gyllenhaal, Melanie Lynskey and Carmen Ejogo are either obnoxious, hateful, condescending or trapped. Women in Away We Go are a source of abuse or the abuser, and neither role shines a good light.
And it's not the acting. Janney is solid, though a far cry from her stern, but loving step-mom in Juno. And Gyllenhaal is a convincing self-righteous hippie. But we're never given the opportunity to know any of them on any deeper level. Each new personality gets around 15 minutes of screen time, give or take, and then they are left behind never to be seen again. We are left with character sketches, and were the film a straight comedy, this type of parody might have worked. Rudolph's Verona shows the most humanity of any of the female characters. And Lynskey's Munch Garnett, who has just miscarried and wants a child of her own gets no voice on her story. Instead, Chris Messina's Tom breaks the news to Krasinski while Lynskey does an amateur pole dance. It is an odd choice, if completely intentional (and with Eggers and Vida, I certainly believe it was) to have a film about family and pregnancy that throws its female characters so far under the bus.
All that said, Away We Go is not un-enjoyable. There are laughs and genuine emotion. Krasinski is solid. Rudolph is good, but occasionally wooden. The actors seem to chew on the dialogue at times, rather than speak it naturally. And much like real life, the characters we like the most are having the worst time of life, while those we dislike are hopelessly ignorant to their impacts and behaviors. Away We Go is a film loaded with hipster clothing, crafty (sometimes overwritten) dialogue and a decent concept. It just doesn't seem to know exactly where it's going. And that's life too. The journeys don't always make sense, but they happen anyway. Rent it if you want a hipster, artsy film experience.
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