If you get a sense of deja vu on seeing the one sheet poster for this film, it’s with good reason. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and given the tough competition in theatres this summer, a shining jewel like AWAY WE GO needs all the help it can get to grab your attention, and movie posters are a good place to start. But once that poster grabs your eye, make sure you don’t miss AWAY WE GO – a charming, emotionally engaging, humorous and heartfelt look at what happens when it comes time for adults to finally “grow up” (particularly given that they are expectant parents), come face to face with who they are and where they are going, accept responsibility and figure out that home really is where you heart is. (And if that brief description reminds you of a film that dealt with a teenager named Juno facing some similar issues, you would be right.)
Burt and Verona are the most unlikely of couples but also, the most believable and comfortable of couples. Working at jobs that allow telecommuting, the two are inseparable and spend the bulk of their time together in a small house in the Colorado woods, where juvenile antics seem to be their greatest distraction and greatest passion. Burt is a loveable goofball. Irresponsible to a fault, although in his late 20’s or early 30’s, Burt is still a kid, never having grown up and accepting the “responsibilities” that come with being an adult. Every day is like recess to Burt. Verona is the more responsible of the two. More grounded, but still uncertain of the future, she at least looks to the future, tacitly realizing responsibility is knocking at her door, particularly when she finds herself pregnant.
Excited over the impending birth of their child, Burt and Verona take comfort in knowing Burt’s parents live relatively close to them (in other words, handy grandparents for child rearing help). But boy do they get a shocker when Jerry and Gloria, two of the most free-spirited, off-the wall and hysterically funny people on the planet, suddenly announce at dinner that they are up and moving to Belgium. Talk about being knocked for a loop! What are Burt and Verona going to do? With no real roots of their own and no friends around, it’s clear they have only one option – hit the road, travel to wherever, look up old friends and see whose life is the one they most want to emulate and where they will feel the most comfortable.
First stop is Phoenix for a reunion with Verona’s former colleague, Lily. Irrepressible, vulgar and over the top, Lily is a whirlwind force of nature, bowling over everyone and everything in her path, including her well “managed” husband, Lowell. Although the reunion with Lily is a joyous one, this is not the life Verona wants to lead.
Next up on the visitation list is Tucson and Verona’s sister, Grace. Having lost their parents, Grace is Verona’s only living relative which one would think would make them closer, but Verona has her guard up and a standoffishness, almost a fear, of getting too close lest she lose someone else she loves. With their visit to Grace, we start to see some chinks in Verona’s strong emotional armor.
Not wanting to leave Burt’s friends out of the mix as examples for their own, the couple heads on up to Wisconsin to visit with Burt’s childhood friend and “cousin”, Ellen, and her life partner, Roderick. Greeted with insanity to the Nth degree, Burt and Verona can’t get out of there fast enough and back to “normality” which leads them to Montreal and their former classmates, Tom and Munch with their United Nations brood of kids. Feeling immediately “at home” and that life has picked up for the foursome exactly where they left it years ago on graduating college, Burt and Verona know this is where they want to live. This is where they want to be. And these are the people they want to have as friends as they venture into adulthood raising their own child. Or is it? One night out with Tom and Munch puts a different spin on things, forcing Burt and Verona onward in their search for home and hearth. But, it’s an emergency call from Burt’s brother in Miami that finally drives the point home to Burt and Verona – home is where your heart is. And Verona finally knows where hers lies.
Maya Rudolph is PRICELESS. As Verona, she is mesmerizing. Bringing a beautiful blend of naivete, pragmaticism, optimism and hope to Verona, you fall in love with the character and Rudolph’s performance. Her dead pan delivery is perfect for some of the film’s best one liners and garner some of the biggest laughs. But it is her emotion that gets to you. According to Rudolph, she drew on her own life experience for carving out Verona, particularly as to the loneliness and loss of losing a parent. (Rudolph is the daughter of singer Minnie Riperton, who passed away when Rudolph was only 7 years old.) And without giving away any spoilers, there is one scene for which words fail me to describe the emotional impact of the sequence. Suffice it to say, Rudolph touches your heart as she is seen standing in solitude with tears streaming down her cheeks. There are no words. No dialogue. Just Rudolph as Verona. The tacit simplicity of that scene is eloquent beauty. Just remembering that seen brings tears to my eyes even now.
John Krasinski’s Burt is equally likeable and connectable and his chemistry with Rudolph is sweetly charming. He is such a little boy with so many dreams and not having a clue about what he wants to be when he grows up. He conveys Burt as a kite flying in the breeze sailing ever higher with Rudolph’s Verona serving as the string that tethers him just enough to the ground to keep him from flying away with no direction. Together, Krasinski and Rudolph make you care about the couple. Care about their future. You want to see them find their own happiness and home – a journey that we all travel but not everyone does it with the spirit and joy of these two characters.
The supporting cast is a dream and the characters that they bring to life, thanks to the work of novelists turned first-time screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, show us such a diversity of personalities and lifestyles, but above all reminds us that you can’t judge a book by its cover and that over time people and situations change. At their core, each couple showcased in the film has made their own journey to find their own home, their own life, and while on the outside, Burt and Verona can see the “public” persona of these couples, spending time with each reveals subdural layers of angst, insecurity, love or philosophies that keep Burt and Verona searching for their own life. Merely because someone else’s life looks good on the outside and the memories may be wonderful, doesn’t mean that what’s underneath and on the inside is right for you. A key message in the film, and in life. Eggers and Vida put their best foot forward with this character driven script. And to tell this story focusing on soon-to-be parents trying to define themselves and find their own home is a precious analogy and excellent storytelling tool. The characters are all well crafted, well defined. No gaps. No holes. And a priceless payoff.
Looking to the supporting cast, as Grace and Jerry, Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels had me in stitches; and according to Rudolph, the cast as well during filming. And may I say that Catherine O’Hara never looked better. Turning to Allison Janney, I haven’t seen her have as much fun with a role since “Drop Dead Gorgeous.” She is hysterically over-the-top, gutter mouthed and fun as Lily. With these three alone, I couldn’t stop laughing. Melanie Lynskey is one of my favorite character actresses and as Munch, solidifies my belief. She always plays such multitextural characters and here, to see her sorrow come forth while dancing and then crawling into her husband’s arms was both tender and exquisitely moving. She truly conveyed 360 degrees of emotion.
Directed by Sam Mendes, AWAY WE GO, is at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from other most recent relationship film, “Revolutionary Road” Whereas the latter is dark and angst and trauma ridden, AWAY WE GO is light, airy, open. As with most of Mendes’ films, casting is crucial. Knowing from the start he wanted no one but John Krasinski as Burt, it took him longer to find his Verona until someone suggested Rudolph. Describing her as “high energy, high definition comedy actress” Mendes saw Rudolph while on the road. “She walked into the hotel room. She just walks in and there she is. That’s Verona.”
Take note of Ellen Kuras’ cinematography. With an eclectic range of styles and sets to light and lens, she brought a well defined different look to each, embracing the diversity of this film. Obviously she and Sam Mendes were on the same page as key to the emotion and progression of the film are the continual visual changes paralleling the physical and emotional journal being taken by Burt and Verona.
Notable is that AWAY WE GO was an entirely “green” production, right down to the use of a specialized 3-perf film stock which uses 25% less film stock and chemicals in the manufacturing and processing, not to mention rechargeable batteries, use of reclaimed Biodiesel 5 petroleum and SIGG water bottles with filtered tap water. I asked Mendes about how “going green” alters a production. While it doesn’t change anything from his perspective as a director, “it frustrated the crew a lot. I expected it to be exactly the same, but they struggled a little bit and there were a couple of technical flaws. But it was worth it because the whole green thing is really important and we went a long way. You always feel so weirdly guilty on a movie set. The amount of stuff. It’s the circus come to town. Pantechnics, cranes, trailers and gas guzzling SUV’s and vast quantities of food that so much gets thrown away at the end of the day. To be doing it totally just stripped away, actually helped the film as well as helped the environment. It felt like we were just using what we need. . . That stuff makes a difference. I was impressed with the whole endeavor.”
Emotionally anchored by gifted performances from Rudolph and Krasinski, AWAY WE GO is poignant, funny, heartfelt and filled with love and adventure. This is the journey of life at its simplest and most beautiful.
Verona – Maya Rudolph
Burt – John Krasinski
Jerry – Jeff Daniels
Gloria – Catherine O’Hara
Lily – Allison Janney
Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida.