Friday, June 12, 2009

Laughs and insight slim in 'Away We Go'

Where to begin with "Away We Go," a movie that teams two television personalities for one very misanthropic road trip?

Well, we could start (and perhaps finish) with the issue of miscasting. Director Sam Mendes ("American Beauty" and "Revolutionary Road") seems like the wrong guy for a loosey-goosey comedy that reaches for the occasional dramatic moment -- a dash of angst here, a dollop of despair there. Mendes, whose previous work has tended toward heavy, significance-laden drama, should be commended for branching out, but, in my view, he's grabbed the wrong branch, one that requires a wilder sensibility.

The material in question derives from a screenplay by author Dave Eggers and wife Vendela Vida. Best known for the brilliantly named "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," Eggers can write an amusing line, but he and his novelist spouse haven't figured out how to create characters that engage us as much as they seem to engage each other -- at least not on screen.

The principal casting revolves around John Krasinski, of "The Office," and Maya Rudolph, formerly of "Saturday Night Live." He's Burt; she's Verona, an unmarried couple living in a rundown, under-heated cabin without benefit of plans or careers. She's pregnant, the situation that gives birth to the rest of the movie.

For most of the movie, Burt and Verona travel around the U.S. -- with a brief foray into Canada. They're looking for a place to put down roots after Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) announce that they're moving to Belgium and won't be around to play the grandparent role. Verona's parents are dead. Shorn of family ties, Burt and Verona are poised to begin a new life.

Stops include a visit with Verona's former boss (Allison Janney) who's now married with children and living in Phoenix. Turns out that Janney's Lily is crude and offensive, a woman who seems to view married life as an ongoing series of torments. Carmen Ejogo portrays Grace, Verona's sister. Burt and Verona visit Grace in Tucson. She quickly establishes herself as the film's most normal character, but the trip to Tucson seems contrived to allow Verona and her sister to talk -- however briefly -- about their departed parents.

A trip to Wisconsin follows. There, Burt catches up with LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an old friend and college professor who lives a free-form life with her common-law husband (Josh Hamilton). Gyllenhaal and Hamilton portray outlandish New Age types whose ideas about parenting are so ridiculous, they lose all credibility. (An example: They won't use a stroller lest it create the impression that they're pushing their child away from them.)

Next up, stops in Montreal, where Mendes tries to switch from comedy to drama. Burt and Verona visit old college chums (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) who are now married with lots of adopted children. Life looks happy on the surface, but undercurrents of despair soon emerge. The feeling of gloom extends to Miami where Burt reunites with his brother (Paul Schneider), a dad who's fretting about how to raise his daughter now that his wife has left him.

Over-burdened by its attempts to be clever, the screenplay fires lots of blanks. I chuckled a bit and rooted for the movie to find its footing. But as Mendes painted his canvas of dysfunction, I mostly watched with dismay, wondering whether everyone involved in this downbeat affair shouldn't have invested his or her considerable talents elsewhere.

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