Away We Go has all the ingredients for a great movie. Based on a script by literary power-couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, directed by Sam Mendes, and featuring a charmingly offbeat cast, it should be good. But is it?
Away We Go tells the story of hipster couple Burt and Verona, played by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, as they search for a place to settle down. At the start of the film, the unmarried soon-to-be-parents live in rural Colorado, near Burt's family. But soon after the couple announces their pregnancy, Burt's wacky and dysfunctional parents (Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels) reveal their rather selfish plans to pack up and move to Belgium. Burt and Verona are initially disappointed that their baby's only living grandparents are moving all the way across the Atlantic (Verona's parents died when she was in college, and her grief over the loss surfaces at times in the film), however, they quickly realize that this may be their chance to start a new life somewhere else. So they begin a tour of North American cities, from Phoenix to Madison, visiting old friends—including Maggie Gyllenhaal's character Ellen, an insufferable women's studies professor—and in the process, they discover not only where to live, but how to life.
Based on the previews, the film looks as though it might have taken the tweeness of Juno a touch too far, but reviews are truly divided on the movie itself. Despite some bad reviews, all (save Salon) seem to agree that Rudolph and Krasinski do an excellent job of portraying their aggressively normal characters.
In order of "excruciatingly dull" to "lovely and honest," here is what the critics had to say:
The problem with that particular angle of "Away We Go" is that it's the sort of so-called trauma that ought to be accompanied by the world's tiniest violin. Throughout the course of civilization, plenty of people have had to grow up and make a place for themselves in the world; apathy is a state of being that needs to be fought, not accepted as a birthright. Burt and Verona's relentless wide-eyed innocence is a posture that becomes irritating, maybe partly because Krasinski and Rudolph aren't sure how to give their characters the dimensionality they need. Krasinski (best known for his role on "The Office") schleps through the movie with almost perpetually uncombed hair and a "What, me worry?" shrug. At one point Verona makes a crack that it's impossible to make Burt angry, but the character's shambling sweetness doesn't seem to be much of a bargain, either — it has a watery, indecisive quality. Rudolph, who was always a pleasure to watch on "Saturday Night Live," is a sharper, livelier presence, but her chief task here is to react to, and counterbalance, the rather lackadaisical Burt, and the job is just too constricting.
Burt's a bit immature, and Verona, the grown-up of the couple, occasionally impatient (partly explained by the discomforts of advanced pregnancy). But the protags are essentially blank slates, despite the skill and charm Krasinski and Rudolph bring to the roles. It's their job simply to represent "normal" against so many illustrations of bad parenting, worse marriages and damaged adulthood. But given they're such harmlessly pleasant folk, why don't they have any non-messed-up friends?
Because that would un-stack the deck in a script that needs to paint them as two lonely souls in a hostile world. But in positing normal as special, the pic requires caricaturing almost everyone else.
While handled by resourceful actors, the foibles of the supporting characters are less funny than they are forced and unpleasant. Janney and Gyllenhaal in particular play figures venomously conceived.
A self-satisfied film about insecure people, Away We Go has mustered several genuine assets, but it squanders them all and ends up being not as special as it tries to be.
Directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes, it's a quirky, episodic film that details the adventures of an endearing young couple apprehensive about their impending parenthood. Sadly, most of the other people in the film make up for that anxiety by being smugly self-involved and a trial to endure.
Really, "Away We Go" is about the flight from adulthood, from engagement, from responsibility, even as it cleverly disguises itself as a search for all those things. But the dream of being left alone in a world of your own making, far from anything sad or icky or difficult, is a child's fantasy. Not an unattractive or uncommon one, it must be said, and for that reason it is tempting to follow Burt and Verona into the precious, hermetic paradise that awaits them at the end of the road. You know they will be happy there. But you should also understand that you are not welcome. Does it sound as if I hate this movie? Don't be silly. But don't be fooled. This movie does not like you.
An even bigger difficulty is that "Away We Go" in effect builds Burt and Verona's confidence by exposing them to a series of other couples who are mostly such grotesques and gargoyles that our heroes seem sane and responsible by comparison.
To be fair to "Away We Go," Burt and Verona do have some nicer visits with more appealing folks, but by then the damage has been done. The warmth and goodwill the film's protagonists generate on their own is never matched by anything else put on screen, and that does feel like a shame.
John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are one of the most appealing and believable screen couples to star in a romantic comedy. Not only do they project terrific chemistry, but they adeptly switch between broad comedy and poignancy, sometimes in the same scene.
Despite the lightness of tone and lively turns by the likes of Allison Janney, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Catherine O'Hara, the soul-searching trip taken by its leads is not without the occasional overly purposeful bump in the road.
Even as summer counterprogramming, the Focus Features release could find it tricky luring its targeted female demographic away from such higher-profile openings as "My Life in Ruins" and, potentially, "The Hangover."
Burt and Verona take all this insanity in stride; one of the subtlest and best parts of "Away We Go" is the comfort the two leads have together. They tease and support each other and they're clearly in love, ready to face whatever happens as a team. The story provides no contrived melodrama; what's about to happen to them in a few months is dramatic enough.
Having said that, "Away We Go" does have its tear-jerker moments, though it doesn't try too hard to achieve them. In Tucson, Ariz., Verona has a touching exchange with her sister (Carmen Ejogo) about becoming a mother now that their own mother is deceased. And the last few shots express beautifully and almost wordlessly what it means to find home, wherever that may be.