Movie Review: Away We Go

By Matthew Huntley

June 17, 2009

Pam is not going to be happy about this.

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Away We Go tells another one of those stories where people start off on a cross-country trip and end up on a journey of self-discovery. It's simple, sweet and often funny, but it settles for the type of humor and drama you might expect from a made-for-TV movie. It's good, but I can't help but think it could have been great.

Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are an unmarried couple expecting their first child together. They live in a remote area somewhere in the Midwest. Burt gets by as an insurance salesman (the kind who sells insurance to insurance companies) and Verona is an independent artist. The only thing keeping them in their cold and tiny house are Burt's parents (Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels), who live nearby, but they suddenly drop the news they're moving out of the country for two years. It then dawns on Verona they have no reason to stay, either, so she suggests they go shopping for a new place to live, wherever that may be.

Their journey takes them all over the country. First stop: Arizona, where their old friends, Lilly (Allison Janney) and Lowell (Jim Gaffigan), reside with their two kids. Like a lot of other people in this movie, Lilly and Lowell are stranger, louder and more idiosyncratic than Burt and Verona. This makes it easier for us to identify with the main characters and associate them to ourselves. Compared to others, we view them as normal, sane people.

The scenes with Lilly and Lowell are problematic for the narrative because Janney is a tad too over-the-top and I didn't fully believe her in this role. Her enthusiasm proves to be more of a distraction than an asset. It would have been interesting if Burt and Verona were written more like Lilly and Lowell and, in turn, wound up meeting a "normal" couple. How often in movies are the "normal" people not the protagonists?


Next up is Verona's little sister (Carmen Ejogo), who does her best to get Verona to reminisce about their dead parents. In a tender scene, Rudolph and Ejogo, who look remarkably like real sisters, sit in a bathtub together and talk about their family's old house and how it's simply wasting away. Scenes like these made the movie shine because of their honesty and unaffected emotion. Another takes place when Burt and Verona visit Tom and Munch (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey), a young couple unable to conceive babies but who devote their love towards adopted children.

The movie doesn't work as well when Burt and Verona have dinner with Burt's New Age-y friends, LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Roderick (Josh Hamilton), whom we're supposed to view as deranged and stuck up. Little effort is made to see LN and Roderick as real, full-fledged characters; they're more cartoon types unto which Burt and Verona can be compared. Gyllenhaal is very good playing a woman who doesn't believe in synthetic strollers and cribs, and who wants to make love in front of her kids, but the movie goes too far to make us think she's a wacko.

Another problem was how the movie seemed to become increasingly redundant. After Burt and Verona finish meeting one couple, there's an interstitial that informs us of their next destination, followed by yet another transition song. Director Sam Mendes should have shaken things up a bit. The movie feels too comfortable with its structure and plays it safe, including the final scene when the music on the soundtrack overpowers the emotion of the visuals. It wants too badly for us to understand its obvious message when subtlety would have sufficed.

Some critics have described Away We Go as "extraordinary." I don't know how extraordinary it is, but it is mostly genuine and warm-hearted, although I can't say I'll remember it for very long. One thing that's certain is John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph have the potential to grow as actors. Krasinski has the charm and down-to-earth humor of a young John Cusack, while Rudolph is the kind of actress who looks interesting even when she's not made up. I'm sure they'll star in great movies some day. This is a good one.



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