Oh, Sweet Nuthin’
By Damon Smith
Away We Go
Dir. Sam Mendes, U.S., Focus Features
Scripted by literary-world darlings Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, and sure to be dear to the hearts of easy-to-please reviewers in thrall to any middling drama bearing the Sam Mendes imprimatur, Away We Go is a defiantly bourgeois, unapologetically conventional indie road movie fueled by preciousness. A zany love story, a pot-holed journey of self-discovery, and a post-religious parable of the Holy Family, the film tracks a too-perfect hipster everycouple on a cross-country trip to find the ideal place to settle down and start a family. Yet the film’s humor is at odds with its liberal, Volvo sedan–motored progressivism, marginalizing misfits and slyly proselytizing best-practice parenting and impossibly idealized relationship dynamics. Life happens, but mostly to other people.
Newly pregnant and faced with the responsibility of child rearing, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) pay a visit to his parents, Jerry and Gloria (a cockamamie, superlative-uttering Jeff Daniels and brassy Catherine O’Hara), who delightedly inform them of their intent to move abroad. Bereft of their main support system, the Colorado-based, thirtysomething couple decides to ramble on, visiting friends and relatives in far-flung cities where they might want to plant roots. With each overheated encounter, the archetypes of family dysfunction pile up like highway roadkill. In Phoenix, Allison Janney’s boozy, loud-mouthed loose cannon, Lily, a former colleague of Verona’s, is a horror show of bad mothering; she’s contemptuous of her dreary husband, Lowell (Jim Gaffigan), and insolently mean-spirited toward her overweight, unhappy kids. Next on the itinerary is a reassuring visit to Verona’s gorgeous sister (Carmen Ejogo) in Tucson, then on to Madison, where Burt’s neo-hippie ideologue sibling (Maggie Gyllenhaal, running with the caricature), first glimpsed double breast-feeding her too-old tots, drives them away with her anti-stroller tirade (“I looove my babies. Why would I want to push them away from me?”) and second-wave-feminist self-righteousness.
These cartoon-grade human grotesques give way to maudlin set-ups in Montreal (reproductive mishaps darken the happy-family vibe of two college pals, now adoptive parents) and Miami (Burt’s brother struggles to raise his daughter alone), eventually leading the latter-day Mary and Joseph to a satisfyingly cozy end destination. Unsparingly gilded with feel-good clichés, the film concludes with—what else?—unconventional vows (exchanged on a trampoline) and the reclamation of a quaintly archetypal ancestral manse (empty, overgrown with vegetation, conveniently parked on to-die-for lakeside property) Verona hasn’t visited since her parents died. Home is where the heartache is.
If the road map is overdetermined, then so is the subtext. What makes Away We Go unappetizing, at times loathsome, is its cunning appeal to traditional American values: family, parenting, and the quest for home are the hoary, petrified motifs Mendes manhandles into putrid pabulum. At a crucial point in the trip, B&V tuck into an after-hours Montreal diner with friend Tom (Chris Messina), who’s adopted a virtual rainbow coalition of cutesy tykes with his wife Munch (“Verona”? “Munch”?! Note to Eggers/Vida: offbeat names don’t make your characters more interesting). He knows what it takes to make a family unit thrive, and proceeds to illustrate this point, using the props at hand: pancakes, sugar cubes, and toothpicks. “These are just the raw materials,” he opines to his rapt pals, hoisting a container of syrup high above the food. “What holds a family together,” he continues, pouring liberally and intoning his sacrosanct message like a latter-day M. Scott Peck, “is love.” Unwilling to let this mother of all clichés fly without hitching it to a for-dummies visual analogue, Mendes cuts to a tight shot of the fellow’s plate drowning in maple sap. (Syrup is sweet. Love is binding. Got it.) Oozing twee humor and Splenda-grade intimacy from every one of its well-worn premises and intercalated heart-to-hearts, Away We Go is the cinematic equivalent of an overdrenched flapjack: bland, predictable, and soggy with romantic platitudes.
But one should at this point expect as much from the Oscar-anointed director, a theatrically gestated middlebrow specialist who returns regularly to display his penchant for staging the complacent spectacle of middle-class anomie righting itself, in the final act, on an audience-soothing, conflict-eradicating plane of moral equilibrium. Both Kevin Spacey’s wry, middle-aged perv in American Beauty and Tom Hanks’s stoical contract killer in Road to Perdition find redemption at the end of a gun barrel in their respective curtain calls; Revolutionary Road, on the other hand, coarsely suggests that any desire to transgress suburban norms shall be met with a ruinous, equally blood-stained fate.
What’s most disappointing, if not entirely surprising, about Away We Go’s script is the children’s book–like chaptering and sappy, intra-couple dialogue concocted by Eggers and Vida, two talented novelists who edit some of the country’s finest writers in their respective, snark-hating journals, McSweeney’s and The Believer. (Burt’s professions of love for Verona, played for overtly gendered, date-movie guffaws, are especially rankling: “I’ll love you even if you gain so much weight I can’t find your vagina.” Hardy-har. What, no penis jokes?) Equally vexing is the token introduction of non-alienating diversity. In another film, Verona’s biraciality might be a pressure point; here, it’s ignored, a sign of the film’s liberal-minded color blindness. And if the most subversive scenario these able-bodied wordsmiths can muster for their itinerant parents-to-be is that—gasp!—they aren’t married (Burt asks, and keeps asking; Verona balks) then we have every reason to call bullshit on the film’s self-congratulatory pretension to celebrating alternative family arrangements. This goes tenfold when it cravenly flip-flops on this challenge to status quo thinking with irritating preciosity in the last scene.
Away We Go makes a big show of Burt and Verona’s blissful, conflict-free relationship. They are so likable, so good to each other, and all the troubled sorts they meet up with serve to throw this attribute into high relief. “We never fight,” Verona complains to her beau at one point, so Burt obliges by popping out of nowhere at different moments, mock-yelling “cocksucker” or some other expletive—always with a dopey, audience-baiting grin. Other puerile running jokes include Burt’s boob fetish and mentions of Verona’s “tilted uterus.” One hesitates to ascribe the regressive humor and joyous celebration of bourgeois values as embodied by this almost saintly couple to a purely confessional mode of the scriptwriters, but heroic sentimentality is not foreign to the child-centric oeuvre of Eggers (who’s lately penned a film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are) and Vida (a board member of Eggers’s 826 Valencia, the San Francisco–based writing-tutor program for school-age youths). What really sticks in the craw, though, is the film’s sanctimonious attitude toward procreation as the apotheosis of connubial bliss. The most condescending gesture comes in a scene where Munch (Melanie Lysnkey) performs a sad-slutty amateur-night pole dance while her husband patiently explains to Burt that she’s just had another miscarriage. All is not well in the land of barren wombs. Lou Reed’s lyric on the Velvet Underground song playing while she morosely slithers drives the point home with risible overemphasis: “Oh, sweet nuthin’/Ain’t got nuthin’ at all.”
At the level of performance, Away We Go is distinguished by its roster of players (Janney and Gyllenhaal, especially), but Mendes sandbags them by overplaying his hand, chucking comedic subtlety for contemptuous caricatures of dysfunction, and miring his leads in the amber of one-dimensionality. Saturday Night Live’s Maya Rudolph gets off easiest, giving low-key Verona a veneer of authenticity, but she acts mainly as a foil to Krasinski (Jim from The Office), whose Burt is mule-packed with good-natured boyishness and a few too many eccentricities. With his plastic frames, shaggy haircut, and fashionably scatty beard, Krasinski has the studiously disheveled appearance of a Williamsburg hipster, but without the cool, affected pose. His swell-guy Burt is a faux-naif given to earnest pronouncements (“I really want to be that kind of dad who knows how to make stuff out of wood”), and whose voice of childlike optimism provides the counterpoint to Verona’s self-doubt and sensible maternal anxiety about the future (“Are we fuckups for not having figured this out?”). We are asked to accept that he works in insurance futures, which would be more plausible if he didn’t affect the voice of long-distance dedication deejay Casey Kasem when speaking to clients, because “that’s what these guys like to hear.” This is meant to be endearingly goofy, but it reeks of artifice.
Mendes stoops lowest when he cribs from Wes Anderson, a filmmaker whose entire range of stylistic tics, as Elbert Ventura argued in
a recent slideshow essay for Slate, has been purloined and emptied of significance by lesser artists. Case in point: a tracking shot in the airport (set to music, of course) of a poker-faced, American Gothic-y Burt and Verona silently riding the moving walkway, a ploy ripped straight out of the Anderson playbook via The Graduate. The kicker? Verona’s stapled the itinerary to the inside of Burt’s jacket, which he duly opens with a Max Fischer–like deadpan glance. Moments of idiosyncratic oddity notwithstanding, Mendes’s predilection for hackneyed compositions even extends to the soundtrack by Scottish indie-folk troubadour Alexi Murdoch, a Bert Jansch-meets-Nick Drake type whose breezy, uplifting acoustic ballads have cued far too many emotional climaxes recently on The O.C. and Grey’s Anatomy. But hey, why mess with a proven formula? It’s all part of the film’s overall scheme and unmissable message: don’t stray too far from the conventional (in life, in marriage, in judging the tolerance of your audience for the unfamiliar) and everything will be all right.