Thursday, January 14, 2010

Up, up, and "Away"

Is it reasonable to call a film both subtle and exaggerated? To say a film is simultaneously understated and over-the-top? And, more importantly, can a film work in spite of displaying such contradictions? Incredibly, Away We Go answers all three questions with a solid "Yes."

Away is the latest film by Sam Mendes, sort of a low-key companion piece to last year's bleak Revolutionary Road. But where Road seemed to show the disintegration of a family through the crushing weight of conformity and compromise, Away demonstrates how a good relationship is maintained through understanding, kindness, and genuine love.

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph play Burt and Verona, an unwed couple in their early 30s who, happily if somewhat unexpectedly, discover they're having a child. They're smart and gainfully employed, but they don't feel fully grown-up. The responsibility of having a child leads them to wonder if they might, in fact, be "fuck-ups" and unready for parenthood. What follows is a sort of impromptu journey of discovery as Burt and Verona travel around North America, visiting farflung friends and family in the hopes of finding a place to call home and begin their "adult" lives.

The screenplay, by the real-life couple of hipster icon Dave Eggers and writer/editor Vendela Vida, follows Burt and Verona as they experience one dysfunctional relationship after another. From Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara), who plan to move to Belgium a month before the baby is due, to serial-adopting college friends (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) who can't have a child of their own, the parents-to-be find little encouragement in their travels.

While the various people Burt and Verona encounter are played so over-the-top neurotic as to, occasionally, seem unrealistic, we still relate. We ALL know people like Maggie Gyllenhaal's new-age earth mother or Allison Janney's crass, unfiltered working mom, at least a little bit. But what really holds the film together is how refreshingly healthy (for lack of a better word) Burt and Verona's relationship really is.

Krasinski and Rudolph are both wonderfully charming, and their characters really seem to understand one another. They are the sort of people we want to have as friends; the sort of couple we all want to be. It's not that they don't have disagreements -- Burt wishes to marry, while Verona doesn't see the point -- but where, in other films, these disagreements would lead to lingering resentment and duplicity, here they lead to legitimate compromises and real, emotional progress. In an age of cynicism, where it's seen as somehow more realistic to exaggerate just how much of a mess people can be, it's hard not to be won over by a realistic depiction of a genuinely happy pair.

Mendes's direction is subtle and light, a contrast to the highly-stylized films for which he's come to be known. The deftness of his touch allows us him to reveal Burt and Verona's relationship over time without making them seem insincere. He's helped along by excellent production design and art direction (by Jess Gonchor & Henry Dunn and Rosa Polarmo, respectively) that illuminates each of the film's characters by way of the environment in which they choose to live. The film's soundtrack, anchored by Alexi Murdoch's original songs, provides appropriate emotional coloring throughout.

To be clear, Away is probably not for everyone. The more cynical amongst us might find Burt and Verona smug, while the more sensitive may take umbrage at the various caricatures they encounter on their trip. But to do either is to miss the film's point: sometimes, despite outside appearances and despite our doubts to the contrary, we find we're far, far better adults than we ever imagined.

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