(No longer in theaters)
Jun 5, 2009
First-person novelists tend to have a hard time making the leap to screenwriting, since they’re used to putting all the sparkling insights in their narrators’ heads and not having to deal with dialogue, subtext, or other characters’ pesky points of view. The literary power couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida knew enough to try to compensate for their lack of drama chops by collaborating on their road movie Away We Go and having dual protagonists, a man and a woman—a give-and-take between first-person novelists, as it were. Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are in their early thirties, poor and rootless, living in the sticks near his (narcissistic, unhelpful) parents. When Verona gets pregnant, the couple decides to fly around the country visiting friends and relatives and exploring prospective home bases: Phoenix; Tucson; Madison, Wisconsin; Montreal; Miami. When every stopover turns out to be horrific, sad, or horrifically sad, Burt and Verona ponder their future with rising misery—while I pondered their faces: Krasinski’s is hard to read behind his beard and the ironic set of his mouth, and Rudolph’s is vaguely sniffy and pissed-off. They’re a drag, these two. Perhaps their first-person novels would do a better job drawing you in.
Sam Mendes of American Beauty and Revolutionary Road directed, and he’s wrong for these writers and wrong for the open road. For all his fiddling with cameras, he’s a theater guy: His locales are designed, not discovered or explored. Travel—finding the self by escaping the self—is central to the novels of Eggers and Vida, but Mendes knows where he’s going before he gets there. And so the subject of Away We Go turns out to be not travel but child-rearing, which is at best well-meaning and anguished and at worst downright monstrous. A different director might have introduced some air and softened—instead of intensified—the writers’ snobbish portraits of parents from hell. Although it’s fun to see Allison Janney trumpet expletives and treat her kids with riotous indifference and Maggie Gyllenhaal (pictured, as a feminist academic) breathlessly denounce the sadistic isolation induced by baby strollers, their scenes are still depressing. Everything we know about their characters we learn from their first moments onscreen—only the scale of their egocentricity is surprising.
After all the cartoony satire, Away We Go turns somber; Verona stops running from the pain of her parents’ deaths; and the couple realizes that home is—not to put too fine a point on it—where the heart is. Also, that we should listen to our kids instead of projecting things onto them. The last scene ought to be deeply moving, but Mendes has to jack up the volume of the music to convey its momentousness. Yet I have faith that the perfect ending exists—a closing paragraph to die for locked away in the writers’ heads.