Raing: 2.5 stars out of 5
“Are we f***-ups?” a pregnant Verona asks her boyfriend, Burt, ten minutes into Sam Mendes’ latest film, Away We Go. Suppressing his panic, Burt replies, unconvincingly: “No, no, we are not f***-ups.”
By this point, we have learnt that the semi-employed Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) live in a dilapidated shack in Denver; that Verona’s pregnancy was unplanned; that Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) love their son and daughter-in-law so much, they plan to abscond to the world’s most boring country (Belgium) even before the baby is born.
Make no mistake: Burt and Verona are messed up.
And yet – true to the spirit of American optimism – the thirty-something couple refuse to accept their mediocrity, and embark on a road trip across the country to ‘come to terms with their doubts and fears’.
The device of the ‘journey of self-discovery’ is a surprisingly hackneyed choice for Dave Eggars and Vendela Vida, the hip, urbane literary couple whose first screenplay this is.
As if pandering to their director’s expatriate, wilfully jaundiced view of suburban dysfunction (see American Beauty and Revolutionary Road), Eggars and Vida adopt a deliberately skewed and judgmental stance towards their characters: to show that their affable protagonists aren’t fuck-ups, they paint everyone else around them as infinitely more fucked up.
Forgive my liberal use of the f-word; this is exactly what happens in the film. Burt and Verona meet people who are pathologically – and sometimes hilariously – warped.
Verona’s ex-boss (Allison Janney) is a redneck drunk who has no qualms discussing her genital features in front of her two maladjusted children; Burt’s childhood friend ‘LN’ (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a sanctimonious hippy who can’t resist preaching New Age methods of child-rearing, such as ‘making love in the infant’s presence’.
Compared to these benign witches, our protagonists seem all set to be spectacular parents.
Other twisted characters – mostly discontented parents and abandoned children – complete the cynical picture of American dystopia, which serves as an idiosyncratic reminder to Burt and Verona of how lucky and ‘normal’ they really are.
Sam Mendes’ maundering fifth feature boasts some fine performances, but its over-riding vision is one of scorn for a notional Middle America. Away We Go may be the British director’s ‘smallest’ film to date, but it is also his most pompous.
About Ken Kwek
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), The Blue Mansion (2009) and Kidnapper (2010). Kidnapper premiered in Singapore in March and will be released in Malaysia on May 13.