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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Away We Go

Has any film suffered a critical revision as quick and abrupt as the one currently being performed on Juno? When Juno came out, and this is just an impression, but a strong one, it was heralded near universally for its quirkiness, originality and candidness about teen pregnancy. When it gathered momentum heading into Oscar season the Academy was congratulated for recognizing it despite its meager budget and lack of big-name stars.

Now just a few short years later films are derided for "sounding like Juno", "being quirky just like that ball of pretension Juno" and so on and so forth. Wha' happened?

This Juno-bashing reached a height it had not yet seen with the release of Away We Go, directed by Sam Mendes from a script by popular novelists/husband and wife Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. There was much wailing and wringing of hands over the films depiction of "hipsters" replete with vintage clothes and lack of financial stability, there was excessive dismay over the films employment of a soundtrack loaded with unpopular college-radio rock songs, and there great consternation over its use of outrageous and silly side characters, as though it were a crime for a comedy to be unrealistic. The movie was castigated for its similarity to Juno on the sole basis that each movie features a pregnant female.

The thing about all of this is that it just isn't very accurate. Away We Go isn't Juno, and it is more than possible that whatever opinion you had of that film, you might think the exact opposite of this one.

For one thing, the couple at the heart of Away We Go are in their mid-thirties, and despite not having kids or a great big house and such, they mostly act like it. Burt (John Krasinski) holds down a job selling insurance futures, and despite his goofy-looking beard-and-black-rimmed glasses combo, he is very professional. Verona (Maya Rudolph) earns a living as an illustrator of medical textbooks. Despite the preconceived notions of America's armchair film critics, they do not think they're better than anyone else, they don't put down hard work, and they are not some easily categorized stereotype.

What they are is a couple very much in love, and about to have a baby. When Burt's parents announce an impending move to Belgium, the couple decides that they need to find a new place to raise their child. The movie thus takes the form of a road trip to see old friends and relations, in Phoenix, Madison, Montreal, and with another surprise trip that I won't spoil here.

These first few of these encounters are comedic in tone, and extremely well done. Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan are hilarious as Verona's ex-coworker and her husband. Janney is a profane, uninhibited harridan and Gaffigan is bitter at being rejected by all the local country clubs. In Madison, Burt's cousin (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a New Age mother who won't use a stroller because she doesn't want to push her children away from her.

It's here in Madison that the film thwarts the snap judgments of those who haven't seen it. Rather than go along with the craziness in a live-and-let-live manner, Burt and Verona actively confront the inanity of the character's parenting habits. It's a feel-good moment for the audience, because Gyllenhaal is so good at making the character unbearable.

In Montreal the film takes a more dramatic turn, and confronts like few other comedies would, the realities of loss, unhappiness and despair. There are some gripping and disturbingly real moments near the end of the film, and while it does end on an up note it is not a trite one or an unearned one.

The real treat of this movie is the pairing at its center. It is refreshing to see a movie treat as realistic the possibility of total and unadulterated love between two people. Krasinski and Rudolph are great at establishing their characters' intimacy and need for each other. Their inability to stay mad at or even effectively criticize each other is adorable, and makes for some very funny moments, especially after Verona complains that Burt never gets mad about anything, and he spends the rest of the movie intermittently exploding into mock outrage.

Away We Go is a small movie, but a very touching and endearing one. It does not sink into a quagmire of quirkiness or intricate itself too deeply into an "indie" sensibility. It is the kind of movie that could be enjoyed by a mass, mainstream audience, if that audience would stop comparing it to a movie based on inaccurate prejudices and surface similarities. Away We Go gets a 7.4 out of 10.

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