Thursday, July 2, 2009

Away We Go (Movie Review)

I saw Away We Go yesterday afternoon with a couple of my colleagues at work. I thought the movie was rather wonderful, but my friend Kirsten didn’t much like the main male character’s cutesy boyishness or the exaggerated kookiness of the couple’s friends and family—and Steve, my other companion, mildly objected to the film’s episodic structure, bumpy even by typical road-movie standards—three valid points, however not nearly enough to diminish my enjoyment.

What do I like about Sam Mendes’ latest film? It’s my favorite of anything of his I’ve seen (including last year’s remarkable Revolutionary Road). Well, for one, it is a movie for adults—an R-rated movie that treats sexuality with honesty, even from its opening scene (which had the sort of matter-of-fact sexual frankness I have not often seen in American films since the 1970s). Not to say that the movie is a nudity fest, it is far from that, but it handles sex as an ordinary, real part of love without sensationalizing it or obsessing over it. It helps that the screenplay is by novelists, husband-and-wife co-founders of the magazine The Believer, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida.

The movie has been compared a lot to Juno (2007), a highly praised movie I didn’t much care for. As a road movie, it also has some marked structural similarity to Little Miss Sunshine (2006), About Schmidt (2002), and especially Flirting with Disaster (1996).

Another reason for me to love Away We Go is the small but memorable cameo appearances by some of my favorite character actors—Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, Allison Janney, Chris Messina, Catherine O’Hara, and Paul Schneider. Gyllenhaal shines as a trippy, wanna-be feminist earth mother, and Chris Messina is touching as a happy young husband and father. But I don't want to say too much here. I would hate to spoil the movie’s little surprises, though, by further description.

The movie is a satire about romance, without falling into the twin traps of most movies that deal with romance and social satire: that is, sentimentality and cynicism. It is not a boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again sort of romance. Rather refreshingly, I thought, the unmarried couple Burt and Verona (played by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) are indisputably in love from beginning to end—with no fluctuations whatsoever on that score. They are full of love, respect, desire, and understanding for each other, but what they lack is a sense of belonging to the larger world. Verona fears that they are fuckups. Besides each other, they have no strong emotional connections to family or friends.

At the beginning, circumstances unfold to force them out of their isolation and onto a trek across North America in search of a new home for themselves—and their first baby who is on the way. Like most people in this situation, they follow job prospects and personal contacts, leading them to Phoenix, Tucson, Madison, Montreal, and Miami—where they encounter variations on the idea of couple-ness—people who are self-absorbed, materialistic, shrilly despairing and desperate, pretentiously “enlightened” and judgmental, burdened with a sense of loss, and, ultimately, unloved and unloving. At one point Verona senses that nobody else loves the way she and Burt do and panics at their utter isolation from the rest of the world.

This is the satirical point of the movie—the absence of love in all our talk about love and understanding. On that level, it’s a tiny bit like Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), without the infidelity. Everybody else Burt and Verona meet is a foil, emphasizing the genuineness and solidness of their love and commitment, even outside of marriage. A number of reviewers, including my friend Kirsten, felt that the other characters are sometimes cruelly caricaturized. In a way they are, but no more so than the characters viewed critically in comedies by, say, Woody Allen or the Coen brothers.

In his mostly favorable review, Roger Ebert raises the possibility that they are, instead, grotesques—that is, in the Winesburg, Ohio sense, characters who have one over- or under-developed spiritual quality that destabilizes and dwarfs every other aspect of their personality. As such, they are not so much individuals as manifestations of a sick society and its warped values.

But whether caricature or grotesque, the characters are what they are because (as in all satire) the storytellers have chosen to look at the rest of the world from a precise and individual moral stance—and satirists from Juvenal to Swift to Twain to Flannery O’Connor to Sacha Baron Cohen have all likewise been criticized as misanthropes for their coarse and cruel takes on those who fall outside the limits of their unique ethical perspectives. Unlike “soft” comedy, satire embraces many of the stark qualities of tragedy, too.

In other words, without being preachy, Away We Go is a film with a serious message. The audience is never beaten over the head with the message, and I imagine different people leaving the theater will take away with them different ideas of what that message is. Antagonists to this message—the enthusiasms, bitterness, and pretenses of the minor characters—are indeed portrayed in a disparaging light.

And the message is about love—though hardly the naïve or jaded views we have come to expect from Hollywood entertainments.

What can we understand about (and through) love and commitment? What is the right way to live as a couple—or, for that matter, as a loner? And what promise does love hold for us and for those we love?

This movie offers an elegant yet not too simple response to this eternal theme.

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