Thursday, October 22, 2009
Perhaps it's the indie quirk, the token acoustic pop soundtrack and the simplistic parallels between plots, but as I watched Sam Mendes' latest feature, Away We Go, I couldn't help but think of another preggo-indie feature of late: Diablo Cody's Juno. Both are stories of smarmy, self-absorbed protagonists forced into sudden maturation when saddled with a child. Where Juno was a self-styled teenage rebel, though, the characters of Mendes' film play like the sort of teenagers that litter the Sundance selections, now in their '30s and still wrapped in their naïve shells.
Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida's script certainly has a way of grabbing your attention: any film that opens with a scene of a couple discovering a pregnancy when the man comments that a certain part of his partner's anatomy "tastes" different certainly deserves to be seen until the end, regardless of its ultimate outcome. For a group of thirtysomethings who aren't married and can barely support themselves, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) seem happy with the news, and we can assume that the six months the film suddenly jumps passed without much incidence anyway.
That changes, however, when the couple learns that Burt's parents, played by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara, have finally decided to go through on their 15-year-old dream and move to Antwerp. "The city of light!" Daniels exclaims euphorically, utterly failing to notice the look of shock and mounting fear on Burt and Verona's faces. The two moved to Colorado simply to be with Burt's parents, and their protests that Gloria and Jerry will miss the first two years of their baby's life mask a clear but unspoken concern that they're losing the people on whom they have depended for so long and almost certainly would saddle with co-raising their child. Well, it's not at all bad: Gloria and Jerry could find a renter for their house, so Burt and Verona can live there for the next two years. Oh wait, do I hear the phone ringing?
Quickly, perhaps too quickly, Burt and Verona acknowledge that they've been spinning their wheels all through their '20s, that the only thing they're sure of is each other and that's simply not enough when it comes to raising her child. So, they decide, instead of getting their lives together, to visit old friends in the search of a surrogate family to support them emotionally and guide them in child-raising.
The various visits largely contrast the straight man performances of Krasinksi and Rudolph with broadly cartoonish characters who have handled their own maturation and pregnancies with varying degrees of insanity. Allison Janney (also of Juno) somehow makes the repugnant, shrieking harpy that is her character work: Lily loudly swears and insults her children and Verona's baby bump, and her husband (Jim Gaffigan) has the thousand-yard stare of a veteran of unspeakable horrors. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a professor with radical ideas for parenting that include a moratorium on strollers ("Why would we push our children away from us?") and making love to her equally out-there husband in front of their children to teach them about sexuality.
Through all of this wander Burt and Verona, communicating their shock and mounting outrage with the tastelessness of their old friends with sideways glances and that deer-in-the-headlights look you sport when you hear something so outrageously offensive you cannot be entirely sure that you imagined it in some dark crevice of the brain, for no actual human could say such a thing. Kransinski of course has this sort of role on his resumé: as Jim on The Office, he has to field the outrageous behavior of fools every week. The same role has also prepared him for the sweeter side of Burt's character: he might be a tad elitist when it comes to these minor characters (as if any of us would look upon them fondly), but he's also an impossibly kind person who has nothing but love and support for Verona. He's so nice that eventually Verona, who needs an excuse to keep her heart rate up anyway, asks him to be angry with her now and again and yell. This leads to some amusing scenarios in which Burt suddenly bursts out swearing, with a look on his face not of anger but of childlike peevishness and a showy grin that begs for approval.
The real discovery, though, is Rudolph. I don't know that I can remember many of her sketches on Saturday Night Live, and I recall her more as the person who filled the quota of people needed for sketches than a driving force. Yet she has a wonderful chemistry with Krasinski and his bashful charm, and she gets more than one laugh simply from the way she fields that minefield of a question "How far along are you?" Her character is not subjected to the sort of cheap hormonal humor that one must normally suffer through in a pregnancy comedy, and instead she gets as many jabs (as well as moments of loveliness) as the male character.
Sadly, the film hits the wall in the second half, in which the the largely successful mixture of moments of sweetness, quiet ironic commentary and loopy side characters give way to Serious Moments where Burt and Verona are inexplicably put in the position of experience and knowledge over the minor characters just as we meet a new group of supporting characters who are all in some way stable and down-to-earth. A pair of old college buddies have married and adopted kids, but their steadfast love is marked with tragedy and pain. Before Burt and Verona can even make sense of what they learn about these people, they must fly to Miami to deal with the wife of Burt's brother leaving him. The script loses focus in these segments, thrusting Burt and Verona into a position where more level-headed people turn to these wholly unqualified slackers for help, only to cut away from such situations without maturing Burt and Verona or exploring the levels of despair these other couples are facing that drive them to our protagonists. Eggers has a tendency to ramble, but where his lack of focus often aided the atmosphere of his recent Where the Wild Things Are, here it hinders the wonderful performances of Krasinski, Rudolph, and many of the supporting players.
Still, there's a certain charm to the picture. Mendes has never been a terribly interesting director; his most visually striking film, Jarhead, placed so much emphasis on looking pretty you practically see his nose bleeding from the concentration. Away We Go certainly doesn't buck the trend of Mendes' pedestrian direction, and at times the film seems to succeed despite him. For the most part, Away We Go works well within the increasingly rigid "Sundance" formula, elevated by its actors and a few well-written nuggets: there's something infinitely appealing about a film in which characters travel to Montreal not simply to see their friends but to see if Canadians really do put gravy on their fries.