*Away We Go (R)
Chapel Hills 15, Kimball's Twin Peak, Tinseltown
After re-exploring dysfunctional marriage in last year's period drama Revolutionary Road, Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) returns to similar territory, albeit with a comic lens, in the intelligent road film Away We Go.
Written by married literati Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, the film stars TV vets John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Burt and Verona, a young couple who are about to have a baby and don't know where they should plant roots. It's a simple premise that follows an episodic structure, but the script finds just the right tone, and the performers make it work splendidly.
At first, the couple plans to stay close to the home of Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara), but the self-absorbed grandparents-to-be have their own plan involving a dream of moving to Belgium. From there, Burt and Verona travel across North America visiting friends and family and encountering a variety of parenting techniques.
In Phoenix, they rendezvous with Verona's vulgar, alcoholic ex-boss Lily (Allison Janney) — who taunts her two doomed children with verbal abuse — and her paranoid husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan). After a trip to Tucson to visit Verona's sister (Carmen Ejogo), the couple connects in Madison, Wis., with Burt's friend Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a hippie-dippie gender studies professor now known as LN. This organic, New Age mom avoids strollers ("Why would I want to push my child away from me?") and shares a "family bed" with her offspring and her pony-tailed husband (Josh Hamilton).
Away We Go soars highest in Montreal, where the couple's college buddies (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) live with their adopted children after suffering multiple miscarriages. They've convinced themselves that they're one big happy family, but there's an undeniable sadness lurking beneath the sunny surface.
Burt and Verona's last stop is in Miami to visit Burt's brother (Paul Schneider), whose wife has just walked out on him and their young daughter, giving Verona the opportunity to showcase her maternal instincts.
The performances are excellent, but Messina deserves special praise for packing a powerful punch in his trio of scenes, which he steals from the movie's charismatic leads. Speaking of which, while the pairing of Krasinski and Rudolph might seem ridiculous on paper, the actors actually have fantastic onscreen chemistry.
Since everything orbits around the bundle of joy in Verona's belly, Rudolph serves as the spiritual center of the film, and she gives an eye-opening performance. Meanwhile, Mendes finally cracks the cinematic enigma that is Krasinski, whose past work (Leatherheads, License to Wed and the self-directed Sundance bomb Brief Interviews With Hideous Men) can generously be described as miserable. Here, Krasinski employs his gift of comic timing (honed on The Office) to make his character's fears and neuroses more relatable.
With help from ace cinematographer Ellen Kuras, Away We Go throbs with life, from the laughs and tears to the rollercoaster of fear, anxiety and cluelessness that comes with being a first-time parent. Burt and Verona have no idea what to do, but they know they'll get it done because they have supreme faith in and respect for one another.
Away We Go may represent the "smallest" picture Mendes has made, but in it he manages to say more about marriage and its compromises and complexities than he did in all of Revolutionary Road.