Director Sam Mendes has only made a handful of movies, but that handful of movies have revealed the filmmaker as someone with keen insight into human relationships. Sometimes they focus on interpersonal relationships and sometimes how people relate to their situation, the thing they all have in common is that the characters have genuine feelings and true emotions. Last year, Mendes helmed a film that got a lot of people's attention and was nominated for multiple Academy Awards and Golden Globes. What made this film stand out was the amped up relationship between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the veil of suburban happiness was ripped away to reveal seething anger and resentment once the dreams of youth are torn asunder and the reality of a mundane life settles into place. I liked the movie, to an extent, but have no desire to revisit it. The movie was Revolutionary Road and it is a movie I do not believe Mendes wants to go back there either.
To that end, Mendes is already back on the big screen, less than a year after that two hour shouting match. His new movie is called Away We Go, and it comes across as the complete opposite of Revolutionary Road. It still has a human relationship at its core, but other than that the differences are night and day. It is almost as if Sam Mendes intentionally went after a happier story about characters that do actually love each other to use to cleanse his soul. I completely believe that after the experience of making such a downer of a movie, something is needed to get you back to an even keel. Believe me, he picked the right project.
In addition to Away We Go being a more uplifting project, it is also one that gets away from the studio-championed Oscar-bait drama that was Revolutionary Road (it was a good movie, more than just bait, but it still has that feel about it) and more towards the independent spirit that has been lacking of late. The movie, and the trailer before it, just screams "INDIE!" It is not that it is a bad thing, but it is a little different from his last project.
Away We Go is a take on the road movie, but instead of a couple of buddies we get a couple in the midst of a major turning point in their relationship. They have reached a stage where they will never be the same, it is the time when they have to make that conscious decision to grow and get their lives moving in an upward direction. To that end, our central couple hit the road in search of the place they really belong. It is a sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious, and mostly moving journey that I am glad to have been a part of.
Burt (The Office's John Krasinski) and Verona (SNL's Maya Rudolph) have just learned that they are going to have a baby. This is the driving point of the film, it is the piece that spurs them on to their journey. They live in a ramshackle house, have no heat, and are unsure of where their lives are going. With news of the impending bundle, they are forced to take stock of their lives and reassess.
The couple, not yet married, although not for a lack of trying by Burt, head to Burt's family for dinner one night and learn that the family is moving to Belgium a month before the baby is scheduled to arrive. This news falls on Burt and Verona like a ton of bricks. Then comes the revelation – they too don't need to stay where they are. With this new insight, they set out on a journey around North America, searching for a new place to plant their familial roots.
Their journey takes them to meetings with Verona's sister and an old boss, an ex-girlfriend of Burt's, and some mutual friends in places like Phoenix, Madison, and Montreal. Each visit gives them a different look at what a family can be, each time they come away… well, I can't tell you that. Let's just say that each successive visit adds a little bit more to their life experience, coloring what t is they want to accomplish.
Away We Go is often very touching. Their relationship is genuine, watching the film one honestly believes that the couple cares for each other. It is also not a perfect relationship, they have their problems, but they are there for each other at every turn. They each have fears and insecurities and they grow over the course of their journey. When we reach the climax, we believe they are going to be all right, they are going to come through just fine.
As touching as the movie is, it is also funny, at times uproariously so. Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, and Maggie Gyllenhaal provide many of the biggest laughs in their supporting roles. However, both Rudolph and Krasinski more than hold their own in the comedy arena, matching their ability to craft compelling, well-rounded characters.
Sam Mendes continues his strong of movies about relationships. This is a cathartic experience on the heels of Revolutionary Road, but should also not be looked upon as a lesser work, it is different yet just as effective, if not more so. This is a movie I can see myself watching again. If there is one thing I don't care for in it, it is the indie folk-style music that crops up on a regular basis, it is as if it is there to bolster the film's indie cred. Fortunately, it is something I can get past.
Bottomline. I wasn't quite sure what to expect going in, but it is an experience I am glad to have had. It is a refreshing character-based film in the summer season which is generally dominated by big effects and hollow characters. It is finely acted, well directed and written, with a sure handle on who these people are. Refreshing.