Burt Farlander and Verona De Tessant could be the bohemian, early 21st-century equivalent of the little bride and groom atop a wedding cake. If only they were married.
The indie comedy Away We Go essentially pits the scruffy young couple against the world. In the film’s signature shots, director Sam Mendes frequently places bearded, bespectacled Burt (John Krasinski of “The Office”) alongside weary six-months-pregnant Verona (Maya Rudolph of “Saturday Night Live”). They're often surrounded by backdrops that are, if not hostile, at least pointedly indifferent, from teeming airports to untamed American landscapes. Their expressions feature both resolve and uncertainty, and you can imagine them sharing a thought balloon that reads “Well, now what?”
Away We Go fluctuates from broad humor to contemplative melancholy as Burt and Verona try to establish identities not just as parents, but as grown-ups. Like the couple, the film is something of an underachiever, although it lives up to expectations for laughter and lo-fi charm.
Verona and Burt’s mutual devotion seems strong enough to withstand their modest differences. He’s excited about the pregnancy and plans to enjoy their daughter’s “epic” childhood vicariously: “I want her childhood to be Huck Finn-y.” Looking much more pregnant than she actually is, Verona proves more physically self-conscious and uncertain, with her ambivalence magnified by unresolved grief from her parents’ death when she was in college.
Burt and the biracial Verona live in rural Colorado near his parents, whose politics seem to span the spectrum of annoyance. His mother (Catherine O’Hara) asks, of the baby, “Just how black do you think she’ll be?” while his father begins grace with “Almighty food gatherer… .”
When the grandparents-to-be announce their plans to move to Antwerp, Verona and Burt realize they’re no longer tied down to their current home. They consider relocating and essentially begin browsing different North American communities, visiting the hometowns of old friends and family members for possible places to put down roots. This premise contains inconsistencies, however. Verona wonders if they’re “fuck-ups” with no life plans, living in a house with a cardboard window and a crappy space heater. But they seem to have ample means to criss-cross America on what amounts to a yuppie lark.
Each visit becomes a vignette — some tender, some broadly comedic — with a title such as “Away to Tucson” or “Away to Montreal,” and a cautionary example about parenthood or relationships. In a bittersweet encounter, Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider) expresses anguish at the possibility that his daughter will grow up in a broken home. Given that Schneider essentially plays the Jim Halpert role on “Parks and Recreation,” he’s ingeniously cast as Krasinski’s sibling. Some college friends (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) seem to live in bliss with a Von Trapp-sized brood of adopted kids, but reveal the grief of being unable to have biological children.
On the lighter side, in Phoenix, Verona’s old boss (Allison Janney) has become an embarrassing vulgarian with no regard for her kids or her sourpuss husband (Jim Gaffigan). In Wisconsin, Burt’s longtime family friend Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) — who now goes by “LN” — subscribes to a hilariously touchy-feely parenting philosophy summed up as “No separation, no sugar, no strollers,” which leads to a slapstick argument.
Throughout the film, Rudolph and Krasinski prove sympathetic and credible as the kind of off-beat, funny couple whose relationship works despite its unmistakable quirks. Their performances also prove slightly one-note, as if the actors, both pros at different kinds of TV comedy, haven’t quite mastered some of the subtleties of the big screen. For all of Krasinski’s laid-back positivity and Rudolph’s sad-eyed stoicism, the roles seem to have depths that go unexplored.
Away We Go’s screenplay was written by the husband-and-wife novelist team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, the former a guiding force at McSweeney’s and author of the post-modern memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The film feels surprisingly second-hand, however. Structurally, it’s suspiciously similar to Flirting With Disaster, in which Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette travel cross-country and encounter wacky relatives and occasional flashes of sex farce. The recurring emo-pop of Alexi Murdoch proves reminiscent of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack from Harold and Maude and its imitators.
Mendes usually helms sleek, prestigious, Oscar-bait movies, and you can see why a smaller-scale relationship comedy would appeal to him, especially after the marital inferno of Revolutionary Road. The film’s idiosyncratic tone simply doesn’t have the heartfelt quality of an authentic Sundance-aimed comedy like Bottle Rocket or Junebug.
Given that so many Judd Apatow-era comedies focus on male reluctance to take adult responsibility, it’s refreshing that Away We Go depicts a couple that shares these maturity issues. Women may not know what the hell they want when they grow up, either. Away We Go certainly offers a smart, warm date night at the movies, it’s just not exactly a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.