Away We Go

(2009) ** 1/2 R
97 min. Focus Features. Director: Sam Mendes. Cast: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Carmen Ejogo, Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels.

/content/films/3451/1.jpgAs novelists and lit magazine publishers, Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida are literary darlings and literal darlings: husband and wife. They have their many separate ventures as well as their joint ventures: two children and the screenplay for Away We Go, a comedy of parenting. With its dull colors and folk-rock soundtrack, Away We Go suggests Sam Mendes' attempt to achieve the oft-chased feel of '70s cinema--in this case, Hal Ashby or Mike Nichols. It's a game try, but the transparently schematic result too often gets under the skin in the wrong way.

Unmarried and expecting a child, Burt (John Krasinski of The Office) and Verona (Maya Rudolph of SNL) are counting on the support of Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara). When Burt and Verona visit with their baby news, Burt's beaming parents reveal big news of their own: they're pursuing their lifelong dream of relocating to Belgium: "Antwerp, City of Light." With them out of the picture for two years, and Verona's parents deceased, Burt and Verona hit the road, ostensibly to explore their newfound freedom and start a new homestead but, more importantly, to seek out a family that will be by them should trouble arise.

Maya and Burt nervously reconnect with family and old friends as they audition Phoenix (Verona's old friend Lily - Allison Janney), Tucson (Verona's sis Grace - Carmen Ejogo), Madison (Burt's old friend LN - Maggie Gyllenhaal), Montreal (college buddies Munch & Tom - Melanie Lynskey and Chris Messina), and, finally, Miami (Burt's bro Courtney - Paul Schneider). Each stop offers a brand of cold comfort (that's putting a nice spin on it) as the early-thirties couple decide what kind of parents they want to be and--connected by a kind of dubious logic--where they want to raise a child.

In a day at the (dog) races, Lily and her husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan) half-heartedly mask their depression with upbeat bluster, but it's a family that clearly feels trapped with each other. The single Grace mostly just reminds Verona of their traumatic parental loss, the last thing she wants to revisit. LN and her her partner Roderick (Josh Hamilton) are sanctimonious, trust-funded wanna-be love children full to bursting with New Age parental advice, typified by LN looking a gift stroller in the seat: "I love my babies. Why would I want to push them away from me?"

The United Colors of Benetton cheer of Munch and Tom's Montreal playhouse complicates over the course of a parents' night out. First, Munch offers words to the wise ("You have to be so much better than you ever thought you could be") and soon therafter, she's moodily pole-dancing to the Velvet Underground for an exotic-dancing amateur night. As for Courtney, also a parent, he wouldn't even be on the itinerary were he not having a devastating personal crisis.

Away We Go earns credit for breaking the romantic comedy mold (it is, after all, a comedy-laced story of two people struggling to secure their love). It's not a situation comedy, either, which proves somewhat frustrating. For much of the picture, Eggers & Vendela simply sit people down for conversations and then mercilessly make them look bad, even as the goal isn't so much scathing satire as a road picture with the heroes navigating emotional roadblocks on the way to (spoiler alert!) a climactic reward of pure hope.

/content/films/3451/2.jpgBurt and Verona's neuroses are understandable, and though they don't see it as readily as the audience, they're better equipped for long-term happiness than they think. Krasinski and Rudolph make them appealing company, people whose sense of humor saves them from depression and suggests they're at least trying to have perspective. For example, Verona's half-serious suggestion "We should fight more" (and what nice guy hasn't heard that one?) yields some amusing moments, in tandem with a heart monitor turned comedy prop. For all this, the film seems sorely tempted to go after its Generation X protagonists ("Are we fuck-ups?", Verona wonders aloud, and in a conspicuous later scene, she and Burt stroll past a political rally, taking no note of it). But make no mistake: these sweetheart heroes will be granted unrealistic uplift by that irritating, almost bizarrely senseless resolution.

Speaking of sweet hearts, a mid-picture parental show-and-tell uses sugar cubes to represent children, and syrup to represent strife. Though the objects are handy, the accidental conflation of trouble and sweetness says something about Eggers and Vida's above-average comfort as parents: Burt and Verona may live in a trailer with cardboard windows, but it's a misleading signifier given everything else we see: a sprawling, free-spending road trip and an unconcerned expectation of finding a home wherever they please (not to mention the happy-go-lucky retirement of Burt's parents). Both have wildly flexible only-in-the-movies jobs and, together--yes, I'll say it again--an only-in-the-movies, wish-fulfilling happy ending.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 9/29/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

The brand-new transfer for brand-new film Away We Go looks unsurprisingly fresh on Blu-ray, especially from the experts at Universal. This is not a particularly bright and color film, but its drabness is rendered with perfect fidelity to Mendes' intentions, and with plenty of convincing detail and texture. Similarly, the sound is not pumped up with effects designed to impress, but the subtle surround treatment afforded by the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track here can only be described as definitive, offering clarity to dialogue and warmth and body to the film's musical themes.

The disc offers a few choice extras, primarily a feature commentary with director Sam Mendes and writers Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida. This track provides insight into the intentions and approach of the writing team and the director who picked up their ball (baby?) and ran with it.

"The Making of Away We Go" (16:13, HD) is standard stuff, though nicely produced, featuring set footage and interviews with Maya Rudolph, John Krasinski, Mendes, production designer Jess Gonchor, location manager Tyson Bidner, director of photography Ellen Kuras, Josh Hamilton, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney, Jeff Daniels, Carmen Ejogo, and Chris Messina.

"Green Filmmaking" (6:38, HD) explains the process of ensuring the film was "carbon-neutral." Interviewed are executive producer Mari Jo Winkler-Ioffreda, Mendes, producer Edward Saxon, Katie Carpenter of Earthmark/Green Media Solutions, Gonchor, Melanie Lynskey, Ejogo, Bidner, Hamilton, catering manager Vincent De Vingo, and Krasinski.

Lastly, Universal equips the disc with its My Scenes bookmarking feature and BD-Live capability.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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