Here’s another film I picked up in my bargain hunt last weekend.
This is what love is.
Burt and Verona are a couple in their early thirties expecting their first baby. When Burt’s parents announce they are moving to Belgium a month before the birth, Burt and Verona decide to visit some other family and friends around the country, looking for the perfect place to raise their child.
Admittedly that doesn’t sound like it would be a laugh riot, but if I have earned any of your trust in the year this site has been running, please do as I’m telling you now and get this film. It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s romantic, it’s genuine… It’s wonderful.
All of director Sam Mendes’ previous films, aside from Jarhead, have looked at the idea of a couple on a journey, whether it is one of self-discovery; escape from the mob; or to the end of a relationship. In Away We Go, the journey is both literal and metaphorical: Burt and Verona are searching for a place to call home, but they are also working their way towards finding the confidence to be good parents. Knowing the script was written by husband-and-wife authors Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, I wonder how much of it is autobiographical*. Speaking of the script, it is chock-full of both sweet moments and some excellent swearing. There is also the best pregnancy discovery scene ever (right at the start) and a great running gag featuring Burt’s quest to get the baby’s heart rate up to a level that will please Verona.
Road movies tend to be episodic by their very nature, and this is no exception. The only constants in the movie are Burt and Verona themselves (either one or both of them is in practically every frame), luckily John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph manage to make you want to spend even more time with these characters. In thirty years of watching movies I’ve never seen a more convincing portrayal of a couple in love. If you told me that Krasinski and Rudolph had actually been married for years and never spent a day apart, I would believe you without a second thought. I think the most convincing part is the fact that they’re not all over each other. These two can walk down the street with a bit of space between them, but still convey that depth of feeling with just the odd glance or the way they speak to each other. They are just so totally at ease in the other’s company.
Getting to compare this couple against the others they spend time with over the course of the movie serves to highlight how much of a treat they are. First we get Burt’s parents: the Farlanders. Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels are your prototypical early retirees. They have too much time on their hands and more money than sense, combined with a selfishness that has developed after their two sons have flown the coop. It is the Farlanders that are the impetus for the rest of the flick, when they mention over dinner that they’re going to Antwerp for two years and they’re leaving in June (the baby’s due in July). Since Burt and Verona only settled in the area so their daughter could be close to her grandparents, they suddenly have no reason to stay there.
The three couples our heroes visit on their travels are all caricatures to a greater or lesser degree. This plays up the comedy of the situations I suppose although it could also be seen as robbing the journey of some real emotional heft. Luckily though, this is actually a comedy. Emotional heft be damned. Lily and Lowell in Phoenix are the secret drinkers who don’t really like each other any more. LN (pronounced ‘Ellen’) and Roderick in Madison, Wisconsin are pretentious, well-off, pseudo-intellectual wannabe hippies with a hatred of strollers (the dinner scene in this house and its aftermath is actually one of the laugh-out-loud funniest parts of the film), and finally, Tom and Munch in Montreal are the college friends who have built a rainbow family of international adoptees since they can’t have kids of their own, yet both seem to be horrifically depressed. These last would be at the lesser end of the caricature spectrum. In fact Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey are almost as convincing a couple as Burt and Verona, even with such limited screentime.
The two other stops on the trip are to see Verona’s sister Grace (English actress Carmen Ejogo) in Tucson and Burt’s brother Courtney and his niece in Miami, just after his wife has run out on them. Interestingly it is these two visits where we get to see more of who Verona is, first opening up a little with her sister in a bathtub and then with Burt on Courtney’s trampoline.
I have to admit, before watching this I was a little afraid it might be a bit hipsterish and twee. I don’t like hipsters and I find twee-ness to be a little unsettling. The poster and the DVD menus really didn’t help alleviate my fears, but within minutes I was totally pulled in by these characters and these performances. For two actors mostly known for comedy (in The Office USA and SNL/Bridesmaids respectively) Krasinski and Rudolph really prove themselves as dramatic actors in several scenes, particularly the Montreal and Miami sequences, although I feel should remind John Krasinski that there are some times when he really should take his glasses off.
*I suppose I could do a bit of research on that, but at the same time I think knowing too much about the genesis of the story might only spoil it a little.