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'Away We Go' adds great story to summer's film lineup

POSTED: June 18, 2009 9:33 a.m.
/Focus Features

Maya Rudolph, left, John Krasinski and Maggie Gyllenhaal in a scene from "Away We Go."

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“Away We Go” provides perfect counterprogramming for those who aren’t impressed by computer-generated dinosaurs, overblown violence and all the other trappings of summer blockbusters.

I like robots and explosions as much as the next guy, but let’s face it — by August most of us are sick to death of summer blockbusters. “Away We Go” offers an unexpectedly early break from all the loudness of the season.

In this quirky romantic comedy-drama, Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski) find themselves in their mid-30s without clear direction in life and a baby on the way. At first glance, the couple seem like losers. But we quickly discover that Verona and Burt have drifted like many 30-somethings do, they’ve just drifted a little bit farther than most.

However, nothing motivates like pregnancy. With the due date looming, Burt and Verona begin to search their souls.

They embark on a road trip, looking for a place to nest and trying to figure out what kind of parents they’d like to be. The movie becomes a series of episodes, each showing a visit Verona and Burt pay to a family member or old friend.

They hit Phoenix, Ariz., first, where Verona’s former boss Lily (Allison Janney) and her husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan) make us both laugh and cringe as they down liquor and verbally abuse their kids with unabashed glee. We then learn a bit of background on Verona when she and Burt stop by Tucson, Ariz., for a pleasant day with Verona’s single sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo).

Then it’s off to Madison, Wis., to see Burt’s new age cousin LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her fruitcake husband Roderick (Josh Hamilton). Gyllenhaal and Hamilton play spot-on caricatures of intellectuals so caught up in half-formed ideologies and pop psychology that they’ve lost all touch with reality.

The movie ultimately takes a more serious turn when we meet Burt and Verona’s college friends, Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey), who can’t conceive. The cross-country quest winds down in Miami, where Burt’s brother Courtney (Paul Schneider) struggles to care for his daughter after his wife leaves without warning or forwarding address.

These visits are by turns depressing, maddening, tragic and inspiring. All the while, Verona and Burt work through scars from their pasts and anxieties about their future. The road trip offers us the chance to laugh at comedically bad parenting, but it provides late-blooming Verona and Burt the chance to come of age.

The supporting players all give solid if not outstanding performances.

However, no one steals the show from Rudolph and Krasinski. The whole story rests on the unconventional, unshakeable love between Verona and Burt. We believe they love each other, which ultimately makes this a very romantic movie. Rudolph and Krasinski turn in career best performances, proving both actors possess talent well beyond the roles they’ve gotten in the past.

“Away We Go” plays with some of the same issues as “Knocked Up” and other films about 30-somethings who can’t seem to grow up. But it looks at those issues through a much more mature lens. The movie’s tone remains low-key and independent much of the time.

But director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Revolutionary Road”) punctuates that introspective mood with moments of hilarity.

Like when a quiet dinner with LN and Roderick escalates into a battle over the psychological damage inflicted by strollers. Or Burt’s attempts to raise the baby’s heart rate by fabricating arguments. Or a brief encounter with a “performance” mother who obsessively forces her son to show off his intelligence for strangers.

In a season known for dumbing everything down, “Away We Go” never does. This is the rare summer movie for thinking adults. If that describes you, I highly recommend catching it. Another movie like it might not come to town for a few months.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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