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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
In “Away We Go,” Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski play Verona and Burt, a young, resolutely unmarried couple in their 30s who are looking forward, sort of, to having their first child. The pregnancy was a surprise, though not necessarily an unhappy one, and the couple busy themselves making all kinds of necessary and unnecessary preparations for the baby’s arrival: Burt, who has an unexciting job selling insurance futures, wants to be the kind of dad who knows how to “cobble” (Verona politely points out that the rather aimless activity he’s engaged in, as he monkeys around with a knife and a piece of wood, is actually “whittling”); Verona, a no-nonsense medical illustrator, is more concerned with practicalities, but she also has her own emotional issues to deal with. Her parents died when she was in college, and she barely wants to admit to the sadness she feels that they won’t be around to see their grandchild.
Burt and Verona are both rootless and a little clueless. They’re at first dismayed to learn that Burt’s parents (played by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels), who live nearby, have suddenly decided to move to Belgium and won’t be around to help with the baby. But then they realize this may be a chance to reinvent their lives. And as they begin casting about for a new place to live, visiting friends and family in locales from Phoenix to Madison, Wis., to Montreal, they realize that the people around them have plenty of advice to offer, but very few answers.
“Away We Go” — which was directed by Sam Mendes and written by the husband-and-wife team Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida — is, at worst, an exploration of self-absorption that is itself too self-absorbed to be either entertaining or enlightening. At one point Verona looks around at the ramshackle rural home she and Burt live in and laments that they don’t live like grown-ups — they have cardboard filling in for one of their windows, for instance. Of course, there are plenty of 30-somethings (and even 40- and 50-somethings) who feel similarly. But whiny laments about not feeling like a grown-up rank pretty low on the list of things that tend to motivate us to care about characters. (If being a grown-up is just a matter of replacing a window, it’s not that complex — just go ahead and do it, for God’s sake.) It appears that Eggers (the author of books including “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and an erstwhile Salon contributor) and Vida (a novelist and the co-editor and cofounder of The Believer) are trying to map a certain kind of contemporary listlessness: Burt and Verona are people who are grown up enough to have babies, but they don’t have particularly fulfilling jobs or live in a place they really like. They don’t feel connected to the world around them in any meaningful way, and they’re just not sure what to do about it.
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.
Beyond that, the main sin of “Away We Go” is simple dullness. The movie drags and dawdles when it needs to skip along. And yet of all the pictures Mendes has directed — from “American Beauty” to “Road to Perdition” to “Revolutionary Road” — “Away We Go” at least shows some humility. This isn’t a particularly graceful picture, but Mendes doesn’t seem out to dazzle us with his alleged brilliance, either. And maybe because, for once, he isn’t trying too hard, he’s able to capture some of the subtler textures of coupledom. During the course of their odyssey Burt and Verona reconnect with a number of old friends, from an unstable loudmouth who has no trouble yakking about her breasts in public (Alison Janney), to a monstrous hippie-dippie mom (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who also has the luxury of being independently wealthy, to a seemingly normal and stable couple (played by Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) who have built a happy, noisy family by adopting a bunch of kids. In the movie’s best moments, Burt and Verona lie in bed (or, in one case, on an outdoor trampoline) at night, talking to each other about the day’s events and the troubles and peculiarities of their various friends. Without stating it outright, they recognize that even though they may feel perpetually lost and screwed-up, in the grand scheme of things they really are doing OK. In those moments, the too-cute self-consciousness of “Away We Go” temporarily melts away, and for as long as they last, the movie feels genuinely grown-up.
British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
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