Sam Mendes has built a solid, respectable, acclaimed career out of making films that I don't much like.
"American Beauty" may have suffered a profound backlash after winning the Oscar for Best Picture, but I still think there's a lot to like about it. Sure, the third act is built on a lame "Three's Company" coincidence, and it doesn't really break any new ground in the "suburban life can be weird" genre, but it's got energy and style and some great performances. "Road To Perdition" is a mild pleasure for me, but I'm not sure I could even explain what it is that doesn't quite gel about it for me. "Jarhead" is one of those movies that I could feel myself forgetting even as I watched it, and I don't think I've thought about it since it ended. I doubt I could even describe anything in it for you. Pure Teflon filmmaking.
Then there was last year's "Revolutionary Road." I wrote a fairly short, gentle review for the movie when it was released, but the more I've thought about it, the less I like it. It is a remarkable amount of film craft to through at a shallow, rancid piece of writing that misses every subtle detail of the novel, reducing it to little more than a shrill screed about how lousy marriage and the suburbs can be. Yawn.
Each of those films has fans, and I can understand why someone might like any one of those films more than I do. I certainly don't think Mendes is a bad filmmaker. I just think he makes very stylized, very theatrical films that hinge on pretty big choices, and like a lot of theater, your reaction to those choices is going to determine whether or not the film works for you. His stage background is all over his choices as a filmmaker, the way he approaches each project. Think of how completely he changes his style from film to film. That's his signature so far... a different broad reality each time out.
And I can imagine after bathing in the poison of "Revolutionary Road" for the year or more he put into it, Mendes was probably ready for an about-face in tone. That would certainly help explain the origin of the gentle, sweet, wistful look at a couple on the verge of parenthood looking for a place to call home. It's by far the slightest movie Mendes has made so far, and I think it's the first of his movies that I sort of love completely.
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I'll say up front, I'm an easy mark for this stuff. The film is all about the last four and a half years of my life. It's what I've just lived through and what I'm living through now. I'm the mark here, and I fully acknowledge that. Even so, I really like the shambling comic rhythms of the script by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, and there's something about the way Mendes tackles the material that seems looser than anything he's done before, and it suits him. In the end, this won't be seen as "consequential," and some critics may hold that against the film, but I prefer this to his serious Oscar-bait work.
John Krasinski plays Burt, a guy in his early 30s who is involved with Verona, played by Maya Rudolph. When they discover that they're expecting a child (it's a great method, and a great reaction) in a very funny opening scene, they realize that they need to start making some major decisions about their lives. One of the most immediate issues is the way Verona refuses to marry Burt, no matter what he says or how he proposes. More urgently, thought, they need a place to live, a real home where they can settle down and raise their kid. Their first inclination is to live near Burt's parents (played by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara for one giddy dinner scene), but when that falls apart, they realize they can move anywhere they want. That raises one of the most basic questions that any of us face, especially as more and more of our jobs exist online or in some decentralized space, where we are not bound to an office or even a particular city: when you can live anywhere at all, how do you choose?
Burt and Verona decide to travel so they can visit friends in various cities as they look for work, also hoping to find that perfect combination of peer group and environment. It sets up an episodic structure for the film, which allows different cast members to dip in and out of the movie, and it means there are some pretty radical shifts in tone. For example, Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan show up as Lily and Lowell. She's an ex-boss of Verona's, living in Arizona now and raising a family, and their scenes play broad and cartoonish at first, loud and chaotic. But there are some dark subcurrents to the jokes, and what seems too big or too broad ends up seeming very real and even a little nightmarish.
One of the things that new parents or soon-to-be parents have to contend with is unsolicited advice. You are bombarded with it, hammered with it, all the time, from everyone. Personally, I always had to struggle to restrain my own tendency towards sarcasm when I was approached by those super-crunchy organic natural moms who consider anything corporate or processed to be a sin, and who want to push you to live the same extreme lifestyle that they have adopted. Every moment with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton here nails that sort of hippie-dippie crap perfectly. They are smug, overbearing in their belief that they are right, completely self-absorbed, and enough to scare any sane person off parenting for good.
The best scenes in the film involve Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey, and I love the way every moment with them unfolds. Lynskey hasn't had the same sort of superstar career that her "Heavenly Creatures" co-star Kate Winslet has enjoyed, but she's become a damn good actor, and she's just heartbreaking here. Burt and Verona walk away from each of these encounters with a totally different perspective on parenting, which is sort of the point. No two families are alike in their joys or their sorrows or their triumphs or their failures, so if we use other people as the yardsticks of our lives, we will inevitably end up frustrated. At one point, Verona confesses her greatest fear to Burt as they're in bed, trying to go to sleep. "I think we're fuck-ups," she whispers, eyes wide, and as much as he denies it and tries to comfort her, it's obvious that the same fear is eating at him. If you don't have your whole life figured out at 30, are you a fuck-up? If you don't have a house of your own by 35, are you a fuck-up? At what point are you required to have it all figured out, locked down, and on course? Does anyone ever?
Cinematographer Ellen Kuras, known for her documentary style work, makes a strong stylistic shift here, working in bright primary colors. It's great work, and again... it's not really like anything Mendes has done before. Equally surprising is the work by Maya Rudolph as Verona. I always though she was a strong performer on "Saturday Night Live," but she brings that crackerjack comic timing to this role and then adds vulnerability and soul and humanity to it, revealing all of the contradictions in Verona without making them seem like flaws. Krasinski's playing well within the range he's established on "The Office," but he has an easy chemistry with Rudolph that works. I've noticed that there seems to be a quiet anger that bubbles constantly just under the surface of the amiable charmers he tends to play, and I would suggest it's the anger that seems inherent to any smart person who has to deal with the crippling stupidity of much of modern life. I think that just-barely-choked-back rage is what makes Krasinski interesting and keeps him from being bland.
"Away We Go" won't have a huge ad campaign behind it, and it won't be opening on thousands of screens, but it's worth seeking out. And if you want a really interesting thematic double-feature, try to catch this and Pixar's "Up" back-to-back. Aside from both being good films, they offer two different perspectives, both valid, on this adventure called life. Heady stuff for summer movies, indeed.
"Away We Go" opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 5.
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