In the first scene of Away We Go—as Burt (John Krasinski) performs the kind of unsexy, itch-scratching cunnilingus that only happens in long-term relationships on his partner Verona (Maya Rudolph)—we get a glimpse of their house, and it’s the kind of messy, cluttered space, heavy with the detritus of day-to-day life, in which people actually live. They discover that they’re pregnant—this is definitely a couple who says “we’re pregnant” unironically—and head out into the world, fairy-tale-style, to find the perfect place to raise their child. But even as the prospective parents leave all the knickknacks and junk of their home behind, they carry that messy chaos with them.
Credit must be given to director Sam Mendes: With the rumpled humanity of Away We Go, he finally sloughs off the constricting drama-with-a-capital-“D” of Revolutionary Road and American Beauty; he should shoot all his films on the fly like this. Verona doesn’t want to marry Burt—they’ve transformed her blasé rejection of his proposal into a party trick—but they’re clearly a couple who love each other and believe they’re in it for the long haul. As they travel to Phoenix and to Madison and Montreal and Miami, they confront other families who have been ground, by the day-to-day surrenders that happen while raising a family, into caricatures. Sometimes they find the humanity buried underneath the weird personas that their friends have built. Sometimes they don’t. But as they test the fit of these different families—trying them on and discarding them like cheap clothes in a department store—we get to know and care about Burt and Verona in a way that American cinema isn’t normally good at pulling off.
Krasinski easily sheds the TV-ready eyebrow wiggles of his The Office character. His Burt is a professorial, nerdy man, fuzzy-bearded like an inviting warm sweater, who sells insurance to insurance companies and has a highly inappropriate phone manner. Rudolph displays a depth as Verona that she never had the opportunity to show off on Saturday Night Live.
Film critics have been assaulting Away We Go based on its pedigree—the film was written by McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida. The reviews are awash with all the adjectives that book reviewers dumped on Eggers’s first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, on its release in 2000. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman huffed that it was a movie that “invites you, all too often, to feel superior to the people on screen” and chastised its “smugness” and “postcollegiate languor.” In the New York Times, A. O. Scott claimed the lead performers oozed “passive-aggressive winsomeness” as they played characters who were all too aware of their “special status as uniquely sensitive, caring, smart and cool beings on a planet full of cretins and failures.” Both reviews scoff at Verona’s line “Are we fuckups?” (although they delicately scoff: The NYT review paraphrases it as “screw-ups,” the EW review uses the more daring “f---ups”), and both bubble with the finger-shaking aggressiveness of clueless old men who don’t understand what they’ve just been shown but certainly know they don’t like it.
So this isn’t a film for everyone. If you don’t enjoy movies about characters who are trying to be thoughtful as they search out their roles in life, you shouldn’t go. If you don’t believe that broad comic scenes can work mere minutes from quiet, subtle drama, you shouldn’t go. You’ve got The Hangover, and dozens of movies like it, in theaters right now to keep you entertained. But if you’ve ever consciously considered how to live your life while doing the least harm possible to others, or if you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by the amassing of little responsibilities that happens when you become an adult, or if you’ve ever wondered if you’re a fuckup, this is a rare movie that’s meant just for you.