Deborah Ross

Journey’s end | 19 September 2009

Away We Go<br /> 15, Nationwide

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Away We Go

15, Nationwide

Away We Go is a comic drama directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road) and it’s sweet, I suppose, but it’s also oddly inconsequential, fake and annoying. It’s a sort of road movie, following the journey of an expectant couple who travel the US in search of the perfect place to put down roots and raise a family. And what does this journey teach them? According to my press notes, they ‘realise they must define home on their own terms’, which has to be good. I mean, imagine if they hadn’t realised that, and had defined it on Gilbert & George’s terms, and what a scatological nightmare that would be. (They want to do the best for their child, and it will never even be able to have friends round!)

Written by the husband and wife team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, it stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Burt and Verona, a couple in their thirties who are about to have this baby and appear not to realise that millions of people have had babies for millions of years — having a baby is thought to predate the iPod, the internet and even the George Foreman lean, mean grilling machine — and their best bet might be to just get on with it and muddle through as best they can, like the rest of us. Actually, that’s unkind. They love each other and are hopelessly in love with each other, which isn’t something you see often in the cinema, possibly because it is so dramatically and fatally dull. This is a film that yearns to be another Juno or a Little Miss Sunshine, but you can’t contrive quirky, off-beat pizzazz. No, wrong again. You can. In fact, I contrived some quirky, off-beat pizzazz just last Sunday, when I had friends round, but you cannot do it without absolutely believing in your characters and your story, and there is no sense that Mendes ever does.

Anyway, it all kicks off when Burt’s sensationally narcissistic parents, who live nearby, announce they won’t be around for the birth of their grandchild as they are leaving Colorado for Antwerp. The parents are played by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels, who overact fantastically, as do all the names who have cameos in this. I love Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels and I worship Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels and if Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels ever came round I would do my damnedest to contrive some quirky, off-beat pizzazz for their entertainment, but I just felt embarrassed for them here. I also read in my press notes that Mendes directed this while still in post-production on Revolutionary Road. ‘It was a way of letting off steam.’ he says. I can see that. And so will you. It’s all steam and no subtlety.

So, Burt and Verona, released from living in Colorado themselves, hit the road — visiting family and friends in various cities, all presented episodically like a series of postcards — and it’s all pretty much rigged. Verona’s biggest fear is that she and Burt are ‘f***-ups’, aren’t grown-up enough to raise a child, but everyone they encounter proves this isn’t so. Heck, they might even be great! There are the repellent caricatures which include Maggie Gyllenhaal as a new-age nutter of a mother who hyperventilates when Burt brings a stroller into her house, and Allison Janney as a poisonous lush of a mother who ‘jokes’ about her own children within their earshot. ‘She is only 12 and I know she’s a dyke,’ she says of her young daughter, before urging her to do her ‘dyke walk’. Nice. And then there are the saddos after our sympathy, like Burt’s brother, who is heartbroken because his wife has just walked out on him and their kid. What else is this film saying? That the nuclear family is the only family worth being part of?

This is a film that might have been saved if we liked the central characters, but I’m not even sure about that. I’m all for self-absorption — most days, all I think about is me — but it’s too much on screen, and makes it all too one-paced. They also lack any dimensionality. He’s meant to be an endearing shambles, I think, but simply comes across as watery and indecisive, while she does very little beyond looking on indulgently. It’s all a bit of a bore.

Would I recommend it? It’s probably the sort of film you’d watch to the end if it were on TV, but I’m not convinced it’s worth the price of a cinema ticket. Neither am I convinced by its message. A home, surely, is simply something that happens around you while you are getting on with other stuff. In that way, we all inevitably define it on our own terms rather than on, say, Cath Kidston’s. Heavens, just imagine what a flower and polka-dotted nightmare that would be.