There is nothing more annoying than knowing you're being marketed to.
I can picture the pitch in L.A.: it's a love story, but the couple is QUIRKY! They're not married, BUT she's pregnant! The guy is WACKY! He pretends to be Casey Kasem, but he SELLS INSURANCE so it's IRONIC! Let's throw in some BLACK-FRAMED GLASSES, ALTERNATIVE MUSIC, and ROAD-TRIP HIJINKS and we'll have MOVIES WHITE PEOPLE LIKE! The hipsters will EAT THIS SHIT UP!
And despite it all, I did. Stupid movie wouldn't LET me hate it.
Short summary: John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph play Burt and Verona, an insurance salesman and a freelance illustrator who live and love in a Colorado shack (not much of an exaggeration). She's preggers, he's over the moon about it. There's only one problem: his parents (the always-wonderful Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara), basically the reason they moved from Chicago to Colorado, will be moving to Europe shortly before the baby is due. So Burt and Verona make a decision: they'll trek around the continental U.S. for a place they can call home.
From Phoenix to Tucson to Milwaukee to Montreal, Burt and Verona encounter old work buddies with absolutely no filters (Alison Janney, whose hysterical performance made me really start enjoying the film), annoying trustafarians (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton), and their settled college friends (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey), whose boisterous, diverse family is not without its darkness. Burt and Verona also confront their own family issues: Verona's parents died when she was in college, and her sister doesn't think she has properly grieved. Burt, meanwhile, must unexpectedly take Verona to Miami when his brother is suddenly left a single parent--bursting Burt's delighted dad-to-be bubble and frightening him with the infinite potential of familial disaster.
In a lesser movie--perhaps one not co-written by Dave Eggers (people love or hate the guy--I fall into the former category)--Burt and Verona would be the passive characters, letting all these characters happen to them. They'd be overshadowed by the sheer nuttiness of the common misconception that Verona is nine months along (she's six), parents who are for dual breastfeeding and against strollers, and eleven-year-old girls loudly referred to as "baby dykes" by their own mothers. For a while--especially after the brilliant Allison Janney showed up and I nearly peed myself with laughter--I thought this was exactly what would happen.
I was wrong. Burt and Verona are a lovely, balanced couple who are perpetually bemused by the weirdness of the outside world. Their complementing personalities serve them well: he's perpetually excited, a Manic Pixie Dream Boy without the mental illness. She's quieter, more watchful, at times resigned. As Alexi Murdoch (reminiscent of the late great Nick Drake) croons on the soundtrack, it's the two of them against the world--and they're okay with that. They're aware of their own weirdness: the fact that they don't need anyone but each other to get by. It's not their relationship that's the issue, ever: it's the question of where they, and their unborn little girl, will best live out each precious day.
Yeah, I know, it sounds wildly barfy. But stay with me here. Two words: Maya. Rudolph. Sure, she always made me laugh on Saturday Night Live, and she gave a sweet, subtle performance in A Prairie Home Companion. (Then again, so did Lindsay Lohan. Oh, Lohan. But that's another post.) Watching her in this film, I was reminded of how Tom Hanks, he of two Academy Awards and all things grave and intense, started out as a comedian. A sitcom actor whom no one took seriously--he did Bosom Buddies, for God's sake. Until the early nineties, when the lighthearted funnyman blew everyone away with just how tear-jerkingly astonishing he could be.
Maya Rudolph is 2009's Tom Hanks.
Her Verona is tentative, sardonic, and luminous all at once. While Burt insists he wants their child to cobble (he really means whittle), and falls over outdoor hotel structures, Verona is there to gently guide him back into the real world. He'd be at loose ends without her, and he knows it (smart guy). But Verona never takes Burt for granted, either--his genuine goofiness often eases her troubled mind and keeps her from being too pissed off when yet another clueless individual mistakes her for nine months pregnant. And if her beautiful bedtime lullaby to Burt's young niece is any indication, she will be a wonderful mother.
(In case you're wondering about John Krasinski, he too does a nice job. I could swear there's at least one moment where he is straining to not look into the camera Jim Halpert-style, but that could just be my Office fan paranoia. John Krasinski is like Michael Cera: he plays himself, and he does it well. As long as he chooses the right roles, that is just fine by me. Not every actor has to be Marlon Brando.)
For standing out in a phenomenal supporting cast, the Give This Actor a Movie Now! Award goes to Chris Messina, who you may remember as Random Dude Friend of Patrick Dempsey #3 in Made of Honor or more notably as Ted, Claire's kind lawyer boyfriend, on Six Feet Under. Messina only appears in a few scenes, but makes every line count in his skillful portrayal of a happy, yet haunted, husband and father. Have your Kleenex handy for his late-night diner speech about what truly makes a home, enacted with some very unique props--quite possibly the most moving moment in the film.
In short, did Away We Go annoy me? Sometimes. Was it perfect? Nope. Were there scenes where it tried way too hard? Yup. Did I feel as if I were being marketed to? Absomalutely.
Am I still pondering it a week later, and frantically searching my schedule to fit in a second viewing?
Yes. Yes, I am.