Away We Go: Sam Mendes and the artful critique
If you’ve read the nasty New York Times or Time magazine reviews of Sam Mendes’ new movie, Away We Go, you’d think he’d made a hate-filled screed against America; a sort of cinematic terrorist attack aimed at scruffy yuppies, new age mothers, white trash suburbanites, empty nesters, and couples who adopt.
A.O. Scott from the Times wrote, “this movie doesn’t like you” and Richard Corliss from Time calls it “criminally judgmental”. These reviews and others certainly wilted my enthusiasm for the movie, even though I happen to think Sam Mendes, a British director who makes films set in America, is one of the few consistently perceptive directors around. So imagine my surprise when my family and I saw Away We Go on Father’s Day and found it to be funny, touching, smart, and a lot more truthful about the way we live in the United States than nearly any film squeezed out of the conservative Hollywood and Indiewood pipelines.
A hate-filled screed? Hardly. Away We Go tackles, with subtlety and humor, a perplexing and common theme among young couples with children in the United States: how do I raise my kids in a society of competing and rampant politically-charged ideologies? Who are my role models? Where do they live? Away We Go is a road movie in which the expectant 30-something couple played by Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski visit friends and relatives around the country in a search for a new home and perhaps a little guidance. They encounter some awful parenting examples.
First, a hilarious, foul-mouthed Allison Janney, playing a former co-worker living in one of those vast and hideous suburbs in Phoenix, married to a paranoid loser with two kids on the cusp of what is shaping up to be a damaging adolescence. Then there is the strident new age Mom, Maggie Gyllenhaal, still breast-feeding a 5-year old, self-righteously declaring a parenting strategy that enrages our young protagonists. Rudolph and Krasinski move on to meet up with old college friends who have a brood of adopted kids, but no biological offspring. Finally, they visit a brother whose wife recently left, leaving him a single Dad.
Mendes, working from a script by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida (Eggers’ wife and partner), stops short of turning these stereotypes into caricatures. Although the story certainly exploits these situations to make some obvious but rather tender points about impending parenthood, it doesn’t exploit them for easy, mean-spirited laughs. The critics who hate this movie must have a terrible short term memory, since nearly every film released on a weekly basis in this country is crammed with crude, boorish, trite, and flimsily-sketched losers intended to score cheap laughs with audiences. Mendes is after something a bit deeper, an honest depiction of Generation Y slackers forced to finally confront adulthood and not wanting to screw it up.
Both Krasinski and Rudolph are near perfect in their roles, especially Krasinski, whose bearded guy-next-door charm is complimented by a fine sense of comedic timing. They are believably understated and their dialogue rings true, mainly because they deliver their lines with an offhand familiarity, and they are suspicious of pretension and bombast in a way that is common with many couples of their age you can find right here in Seattle. Away We Go may lack the strong bite and striking visual palette of Mendes' best film, American Beauty, and it leaves one or two plot holes glaringly empty, but as a story it seems to do a pretty good job of taking the temperature of post-collegiate Americans. Their choice for president is in office, they have a bit of job security, they’re comfortable in their shaggy sweaters and flip-flops, and they’re pregnant. Now what?