Friday, June 12, 2009

The road to parturition: Away We Go

A welcome entry into the surely under-explored subgenre of the bulgingly pregnant road movie,
Away We Go begins with considerable brio, its first act’s chain of clipped, zingy, well-sculpted scenes just bouncing along, unburdened by preciousness or ponderousness. There is, initially, so much here to like. The dinner scene featuring a fizzy Catherine O’Hara as doting hippy grandma-to-be and a hilariously over-boisterous Jeff Daniels as the absent-minded old dad who’s really big of affirmative adjectives. The warm, inviting photography, courtesy of Ellen Kuras. The final line in the establishing scene of comic cunnilingus, which begins “From what I’ve read about vaginal flavour…”

As Burt and Verona, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are exceptionally relaxed, lived-in, and appealing as the shaggy thirtysomething couple setting out via plane, train and rusted-out Volvo on a slightly loopy quest for an ideal family upon which to model their impending one, for a new place to call home, or, shit, maybe even a new country. Their first stop is Phoenix, where Allison Janney sparkles as Lily, Verona’s old workmate, recently condemned to middle America’s desert suburbs with her shrunken, paranoid husband and pudgy, tormented children. Loud, crass and funny as all hell, Lily, in an especially memorable scene, completes with the PA at the dog track to describe how her children slowly drained the life from her once tremendous tits. I believe “old man’s hairy nut sack,” was how she described their current state. But Janney’s brief appearance in Away We Go finally constitutes, however prematurely, all that’s best in the film. She offers both its comic peak and its most elegantly rendered moment of pathos, a wordless exchange where she lingers too long over a goodnight kiss to Burt. The moment billows with sad desperation in the arid Arizona night, playing out beautifully in a single, uncut wide-shot. From here, it’s all downhill.

Janney, to be sure, gives a broad performance, but she still manages to bring specificity and nuance to a stereotype. Despite some valiant efforts, the same cannot be said of the grotesque Wisconsinite New Age shrew and her sniveling pony-tailed husband played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton. Their characters are so simultaneously imbecilic and condescending that it’s all too easy for us to go along with Burt when he finally explodes and insults them. There’s no real tension building in the scene because nothing’s at stake. Things get only worse when our errant heroes visit old friends now living in Montreal, a handsome, happy couple with a gaggle of adorable and conspicuously adopted tykes running free in their warmly messy house. Everything seems peachy until the four adults go to amateur strip night at some hipster joint and, in what must be the most dreadfully gag-inducing scene of the year if not the decade, the barren matriarch of the clan suddenly takes the stage to perform a painfully mopey pole dance while her husband explains to Burt how devastated the couple feel because she can’t seem to bear children. All of this to the decidedly unsubtle tune of ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin.’’ (You remember the one, the closer both to Loaded and the Velvet Underground’s career? The one where Lou Reed sings “She ain’t got nuthin’ at all” about 90 times?) And she doesn’t even strip!

This is probably a good time to mention that
Away We Go was directed by Sam Mendes, who even when helming material far breezier than the likes of Revolutionary Road or The Road to Perdition still manages to display a heavy hand, one made more leaden still by his irritatingly reverent use of songs by Alex Murdoch, which sound like they were designed for long distance commercials and sap the juice from scene after scene by turning it into some lame-ass precession. I had to rush home and slap ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’’ on the turntable just to squeeze the stuff out. It’s hard to know whether to lay more blame for the film’s weaker passages on Mendes or his screenwriters, novelists/spouses Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, though its easy to imagine how another director less inclined to pomp and more trusting of his actors to carry a scene could have kept things relatively buoyant. Either way, Away We Go winds up frustratingly uneven, a patchwork of some nearly sublime humour and some genuinely touching moments laced with too many clichés for its sometimes superior air and to many scenes that are facile and over-explanatory.

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