10 July 2009

Away We Go

Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida
Full credits at IMDb

The cast of the American Office generally spends its summer vacation starring in movies ranging from the not very good (Leatherheads) to the terrible (The Rocker). But this summer John Krasinski plays it safe by starring in Jim and Pam: The Movie, also known as Away We Go. (SNL-vet Maya Rudolph, eschewing the broad comedienne persona she has cultivated, temporarily replaces Jenna Fischer.)

He and Rudolph are the best, nay only good thing about the movie, which otherwise boasts a pseudo-prestigious pedigree at every level. First, Mendes, who continues his plummet in cultural value: a decade ago, he was a promising young movie director with a Best Picture under his belt; now, his films are of no more interest than Ron Howard’s. Away We Go, however, is probably his best work in quite a while, which may have something to do with its release date; not coming out in Oscar-baiting autumn, unlike last year’s passionless and preening Revolutionary Road, it makes no grand gestures toward an Oscar. For Mendes, this is a modest picture, which isn’t to say that his faults aren’t still on full display, particularly the telegraphing use of music; while the lo-fi Nick Drakery on the soundtrack isn’t as offensive as last year’s tinkling Thomas Newman score, the music is still unnecessarily intrusive. And lazy: there’s no need to create credible emotions when the score, and a little bit of montage (ugh!), will fashion the next best thing without any of the hard work. (Faith in music and skepticism toward the power of the image is a problem for many movie directors whose first home, like Mendes, is the stage.)

The film functions best in the small dialogue scenes between Krasinski and Rudolph; they star as a long-together couple, bourgeois, college-educated yuppies unconvincingly pitched as rural peasants. Expecting their first child (maybe Rudolph wouldn’t look so big if she might think about cutting down on the desserts…and also, possibly, sex with men), they traverse North America—it’s a road movie with more planes and trains than cars—visiting their friends and family and looking for a place to plant their roots. Despite the pat insights and clich├ęd conflicts that usually follow, Away We Go is a pleasure when the leads assess their condition, make cute with each other and whisper their fears about going all Richard Yates on each other—as long as Mendes isn’t drowning them out with music. Krasinski, still just playing Jim despite an academic’s beard and glasses, is so damn cute he’s impossible not to adore.

Though it’s tempting to try, since he’s in the middle of a dreadful script by literary power couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The film, while vaguely Four Christmases-like, is set up like a rambling Rear Window, in which the heroes confront various possible permutations of what their lives as a married couple could be like. But the situations Eggers and Vida conceive are horribly contrived, even cruel: the clueless liberal parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) who can’t even pronounce “indigenous”; the New Age cousin (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who scoffs at the idea of strollers and begins sentences with “in the seahorse community…”; the adopted-parent friends whose attempts at childbirth lead to miscarriage. (What is with Mendes and miscarriage?) These aren’t real characters but crude American caricatures, set up like straw men not for the purpose of making points of logic, but for making jokes. (Yes, Krasinski will eventually take that child and push him in a stroller.) All of the actors, particularly the leads, give heartfelt performances, but they can’t quite fight their way out of the dreck in which they’ve been imprisoned. In other words, it’s classic Mendes. Grade: B-

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