Away We Go: Earned Emotion

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  • on June 4, 2009
  • Filed in: Film

Sam Mendes’ new film is billed as a comedy but it plumbs the depths of melancholy as much as it pursues the funny bone.  The presence of melancholy shouldn’t be a surprise as he’s built his career around the emotion (American Beauty, sale Road to Perdition, recipe Jarhead, Revolutionary Road). The surprising part is that he’s making a comedy of any kind.

Summary taste: John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are having a baby and they decide to fist-fight flux by searching for the right city to raise the child. The journey is composed of chuckles, cringes, belly laughs and, at least in my audience, sniffles.

The streetfight between somber and plucky could place a wet blanket directly on top of the demographic that seeks the sort of plucky that is only accompanied by superficial emotional turmoil.  The scathing, close-to-bone,  tone Away We Go adopts to deliver its portion of sadness offers a valuable juxtaposition to the moments of beauty and hope it also offers.

A question: does the fuzzy, singer-songwriter, veneer offered by the trailer accurately represent the film or does it just attempt to cling to a vibe that is readily-identifiable as hip?

The danger that comes with the commodification of “indie” films is that the independent spirit is often lost in the factory mechanisms of studio filmmaking. As a result you end up with something resembling a product, not a film.  This conveyor-belt process is summarized below:

PARTICULAR FRINGE ART FORMS → PARTICULAR FRINGE ART GAINS STEAM → STUDIOS RECOGNIZE AND EMBRACE THE FRINGE → FRINGE IS NO LONGER FRINGE → NEW FRINGE ART FORMS TO REPLACE FALLEN BROTHER

And then the snake eats its own tail for the next couple hundred years.

What should be taken into account when dealing with a film that first-urge wants to dismiss based on the above-mentioned circle of pain and hellfire, is that the quality of the film still is still relevant.  To disregard a work based on its often-unavoidable partnership with the hype-machine and marketing gurus is an insult to a process which, despite thousands of variables, still holds the potential to produce something fantastic.

So, at first glance, the gut might suggest to the brain that Away We Go falls ever-to-conveniently into the post Garden State wave of woe-is-me-set-to-kickass-music films. The difference between this film and many of the other lost-in-my-generation types that have come out in the past five or so years is that this emotion feels earned.

The episodic manner in which the narrative unfolds offers perspective, both good and bad, for the many different ways a family can operate. It doesn’t offer a clear-cut “this is the way it’s done” but the problem with a number of films like this is that they attempt to offer cure-alls to problems that are more complicated than can be adequately addressed with 90-120 minutes of film. Away We Go comes to terms with this and offers these varying perspectives as productive alternatives. Snippet here, snippet there. If this works, take it. If it doesn’t, leave it.

It was a crafty move by screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida to offer a narrative that, while always moving along, rarely treads into obvious emotional growth by the leads. Almost as though the main characters merely serve the function of the control while the people they meet are the variables. To further accentuate this dynamic Mendes cast two non-leads. John Krasinski might be the anchor of a television program but he is an unproven talent in feature filmmaking. Likewise, Maya Rudolph can pull off the subtlety of everyday-woman because she is not commonplace on marquees and I haven’t had the privilege of being assaulted by her face in the tabloids.

That is not meant to be a slam on either of their abilities, in fact they had a very believable routine-like chemistry which I didn’t expect to be so impressed by. My mentioning their relative lack of exposure was meant to be a compliment on Mendes’ savvy understanding of audience’s expectations. Alexander Payne, one of the baddasses on cinema’s corner block, pulled off a similar feat when casting Sideways. George Clooney wanted desperately to be cast in the second banana ex-TV-actor role. But writer/director Payne wouldn’t agree. Despite the healthy box-office boost Clooney’s name would have garnered the film Payne understood that the distracting elements of SUPER MOVIE STAR Clooney in the role of a failed actor wouldn’t be worth the box office boost and would have likely come off as more gimicky and less believable than Thomas Haden Church’s performance.

You might not find an answer to your unidentifiable worry by watching Krasinski and Rudolph navigate a particular path of adulthood, but you might exit the theater with means to appreciate a side of things that was previously obscured by the fuzziness that comes with close-proximity.

Verdict: he likes it!

The fantastic supporting cast should be noted, as they carry much of the weight: Catherine O’Hara, Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Josh Hamilton, Jim Gaffigan and Allison Janney.

Opens in NY and LA on June 5th.

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