Away We Go (Focus Features) is like a disappointing term paper by a promising student. The pairing of Sam Mendes as director and novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida as screenwriters seemed like a fine idea. After the overstuffed grandeur of Revolutionary Road, Mendes needed a project of just this sort: a low-key comedy in the indie mode, with no big stars and no Oscar pretensions. And who better to document the wanderings of a creative slacker couple about to become parents than a creative slacker couple who recently did? (Eggers and Vida had a daughter named October in 2005.)
The premise of the movie seems engaging, too. There are so many romantic comedies about men hesitating at the brink of adulthood while women drum their fingers on the other side of the divide. In Away We Go, a couple's impending parenthood forces both of them to grow up at the same time, a model that's more recognizable from real life. The problem is that no one in Away We Go is remotely like anyone in real life. And a good thing, too, because if I lived among people this self-absorbed and suffocatingly quirky, I'd go very far away indeed.
Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are in their 30s, unmarried, and ambivalent—Burt's pursuing a career in radio, but without conviction, while Verona, an anatomical illustrator, mulls the question of whether to go back to medical school. They're not trying to have a baby, but they're not trying not to. When Verona, inevitably, gets pregnant, they move to the city where Burt's family comes from, only to discover that his flaky parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) are about to relocate to Belgium. Burt and Verona decide to take a cross-country trip in search of the right place to settle down and raise their child. In Phoenix, they visit Verona's former boss, Lily (Allison Janney), a coarse, braying harridan who insults her husband and children to their faces and makes a drunken pass at Burt. In Madison, Wis., a childhood friend of Burt's, LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), makes a self-righteous display of her commitment to "continuum parenting," a kind of attachment parenting on steroids. And in Montreal, a pair of old college friends (Melanie Lynskey and Chris Messina) reveals the fault line beneath their apparently perfect life.
The movie's peripatetic structure would feel more like a true journey if Burt and Verona didn't repeat the same experience in every place they visit. Over and over, they're confronted with a negative example of family life, a picture of what they don't want to be when they grow up: vulgar drunken sluts? Nope. Cloying New Age twits? Definitely not. When they pay an emergency visit to Burt's brother (Paul Schneider), whose wife has just abandoned him and their young daughter, Burt and Verona agree, in a whispered conversation atop a backyard trampoline, that child abandonment will not be an option. Isn't that setting the bar a bit low? Who makes moral decisions in this kind of contextless vacuum? And if Burt and Verona really are the reasonably intelligent, attractive people they seem to be, why don't they have a better assortment of friends to choose from?
The secondary roles in Away We Go are all played by skilled actors—Catherine O'Hara, in particular, is an unsung genius— but their characters are so broadly drawn that they don't engage with the lead couple, or the audience, in any meaningful way. O'Hara's narcissistic grandmother-to-be and Gyllenhaal's passive-aggressive fruitcake are satiric grotesques in a movie that isn't a satire. Although Burt and Verona's cross-country trek amounts to a funhouse ride through a house of parental horrors, we're meant to take seriously the insights they glean along the way and to believe by movie's end that their journey has brought them closer together. When the two leads are alone on-screen, they can project a convincing sense of intimacy, but their characters' motivations remain opaque: They're two blank slates in love. Maya Rudolph, a former cast member of Saturday Night Live, deserves credit for her refusal to mug. Her grave, still face is one of the few understated things in the movie. And John Krasinski may not have many actorly tricks up his sleeve besides adorable bumbling, but he's an admirably proficient bumbler.
Perhaps the problem with this collaboration is that Sam Mendes' weaknesses as a director line up too perfectly with those of his screenwriters. Mendes is drawn to projects with a broad social scope, but his most memorable scenes are stand-alone lyrical moments, like the scene in American Beauty in which a plastic bag blows in the wind. The screenplay by Eggers and Vida gives Mendes the opportunity to film many such mini-epiphanies (if anything, too many) but never creates characters worth having epiphanies about. The movie's conceit is that, over the course of their travels, Burt and Verona will discover who they are by ruling out what they're not. But who cares how much they learn about themselves if we never learn anything about them?
Slate V: The critics on Away We Go and other new movies