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Away We Go

Uneven Relationship Drama

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

A collaboration between filmmaker Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road, Jarhead, American Beauty) and screenwriters Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and Vendela Vida ( Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name), Away We Go focuses on the excesses, failings, and complications inherent in the American Dream, at least as seen through the traditional nuclear family.

Unlike Mendes’ previous film, Revolutionary Road, Away We Go ultimately presents a far more optimistic take on heterosexual relationships, monogamy, and parenting. But that optimistic take on relationships is up against an uneven, sometimes overbroad tone, a tone partly overcome by Mendes’ steady direction and warmly sympathetic lead performances by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph.

Burt Farlander (Krasinski) and Verona De Tessant (Rudolph) are in a committed, monogamous relationship (but unmarried). He sells insurance from a home office. She’s a medical illustrator. They live comfortably, if not lavishly. After Verona discovers she’s pregnant, they become anxious about their future as a couple and as parents. When, however, Burt’s parents, Jerry (Jeff Daniels) and Gloria (Catherine O'Hara), inform them that they’re packing up and relocating to Belgium for two years, Burt and Verona realize their one connection (somewhere in the midwest) is gone. With that realization, Burt and Verona decide to find a new home, a new city for themselves and their soon-to-be-born baby. Each city has a personal connection to Burt and Verona. Every stop gives Burt and Verona the opportunity to see long-term relationships and parenting in action.

In Phoenix, reality intrudes with a thud. Verona’s old boss, Lily (Allison Janney) and her husband, Lowell (Jim Gaffigan), are the perfect counter-example to the lives Burt and Verona want to lead. Burt and Verona next visit Grace (Carmen Ejogo), a hotel manager, in Tucson. They next stop in Madison, Wisconsin, to visit, Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a childhood friend of Burt and college professor who’s become a New Age hippie type along with her compliant, stay-at-home husband, Roderick (Josh Hamilton). In Montreal, Burt and Verona reconnect with college friends, Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch Garnett (Melanie Lynskey), now married and adopted parents to a large, rambunctious brood, but shorten their visit when Burt’s brother, Courtney (Paul Schneider), calls him from Miami, desperate for his assistance.

Mixing drama and comedy, especially in a “serious” road movie, is always a risky proposition. Unfortunately, it’s one Mendes, Eggers, and Vida, mix in the wrong or, too often, the inappropriate amounts. Mendes and his screenwriters rely on Meet the Parents-style humor for Burt’s parents and worn-out, mean-spirited clichés for Ellen and Rod. Ellen and Rod are objects of ridicule, characters Burt and Verona (and, through them, the audience) can laugh at reflexively. It may be just one awkward, over-determined vignette (out of several), but it keeps Away We Go from truly entering the challenging or thought-provoking territory Mendes, Eggers, and Vida intended.

When Away We Go, however, rises above the banal or the clichéd, Mendes has John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph to thank. Known primarily for comedic roles (Leatherheads and "The Office" for Krasinski and "Saturday Night Live" for Rudolph), Krasinski and Rudolph avoid the broad gestures or over-reactions typical of comedians attempting serious, dramatic roles. They also share a natural chemistry that’s difficult, if not impossible, to fake. A theater-trained director, Mendes certainly deserves credit for eliciting subtle, nuanced performances from both actors, but he has to also share in Away We Go’s miscues and failures with Eggers and Vida and their schematic, underwritten screenplay.