Sam Mendes’ Away We Go is a distinct departure from the directors’ previous glossy works such as American Beauty (1999), Road to Perdition (2002), and Revolutionary Road (2008). In those films, Mendes is occasionally satiric in his over-the-top portrayals of suburban families or the inner workings of hitmen, but they’re predominantly somber and heavy, steeped in symbolism and bright colors. Here, however, we witness a lighter side of Sam Mendes, as he mixes a serious topic (the whirlwind of emotions that encompass soon-to-be parents) with a hodgepodge of wacky secondary characters, starting with the male protagonists’ kooky parents. The result is an uneven picture that’s at times poignant and at times quite funny, but ultimately lacks a consistent flow.
Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), a longtime couple, learn that they’ll soon be parents, and uproot their lives and move to Colorado to be near Burt’s parents for help with the upcoming child. Soon after arriving, however, they’re greeted with the unpleasant news that the eccentric Jerry and Gloria (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) are leaving Colorado to fulfill their lifelong dream of moving to China for several years. With three months to go before Verona gives birth, the pair is at a crossroads of where to build their life, so they embark on a travel tour to figure out their ideal vision of home: they go to Phoenix (where a frequently vulgar ex-coworker of Verona’s lobbies hard), Tuscon (home to Verona’s sexy sister, who happens to be her only living relative), Wisconsin (where Burt’s childhood friend/”cousin” Ellen resides with her husband in a pacifist, pillow-filled bliss), and Montreal, where old college chums provide the first balanced, if inperfect, look at normalcy the couple has seen in weeks. Yet it takes an emergency call from Burt’s brother Courtney in Miami—whose wife has vanished, leaving Courtney overwhelmed and stunned, and his young daughter confused and with no maternal influence—for Burt and Verona to recognize that they have to carve out their own meaning of family, as well as their life together and their upcoming responsibility.
Away We Go has some delightful moments, particularly the duo’s time at Ellen’s (Maggie Gyllenhaal) Wisconsin home, where strollers are the anti-christ and parenting is graded by how much physical contact and together time everyone has. But Mendes seems unsure where to take the film, as its primary themes of self-discovery and parental philosophies weave in and out of meaningfulness. One of the more intriguing subplots—Verona’s unwillingness to marry the man she considers her sure-fire life partner, undoubtedly stemming from insecurity issues relating to her deceased parents—is moderately explored, but it’s insufficient given how badly Burt wants to offically tie the knot. And the encounters with the various wack-a-doodle families could serve as an owner’s manual for what not to do as parents…which results in some chuckles but not any emotional fulfillment as Burt and Verona evolve, something that Mendes clearly hoped for if the final sequence is any indication. Strong acting keeps Away We Go consistently watchable— John Krasinski is particularly excellent as Burt—and the natural banter between the leads and seconds is quite good. But ultimately, large tonal inconsistencies prevents Away We Go from being more than passable entertainment, with good performances and a few great moments mixed in for good measure.