"I think we might be fuckups," Verona (Maya Rudolph) admits to Burt (John Krasinski). At 34 and 33, Verona and Burt are unsure of where to go or what to do—and matters aren't helped by the fact that Verona's pregnant, or that Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) have decided to move away. So Verona and Burt decide to find a new place to start their family: Hoping that somewhere will feel like home, they travel from Arizona to Wisconsin to Montreal to Miami, reconnecting with family members, college friends, and employers to try and figure out where (and how) to grow up.
There are a bunch of really excellent things about Away We Go. Like the script, co-written by Dave Eggers, the grand overlord of the McSweeney's empire, and his novelist wife, Vendela Vida, who also co-edits The Believer magazine. Together, Eggers and Vida have crafted an earnest and straightforward comedy/drama about two earnest and straightforward people.
Then there's the cast, which—aside from a goofy appearance by Maggie Gyllenhaal—is excellent. Krasinski and Rudolph's comic skills, honed on The Office and Saturday Night Live, serve them exceedingly well in Eggers and Vida's often funny, sometimes dramatic narrative: Verona and Burt are likeable, even loveable, and they're backed up by a great ensemble of actors, including Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Chris Messina, and Melanie Lynskey.
And there's Ellen Kuras' cinematography, and the film's willingness to ramble and roam when it needs to, and the admirable sincerity of it: Away We Go has so much heart—so much empathetic goodwill for its characters—that it strains at the seams.
Which is where the not-so-excellent things kick in. American Beauty and Jarhead director Sam Mendes, fresh from the suburban self-loathing of Revolutionary Road, feels a bit too excited to be making a film that won't make his audience want to slash their wrists. With their script, Eggers and Vida carefully balance sly humor and candid emotion, and Krasinski and Rudolph are similarly adept and intuitive—but Mendes can't quite stick the landing. About 500 times during the film, the emo strumming of singer/songwriter Alexi Murdoch dramatically swells on the soundtrack, making Away We Go briefly feel like (A) an episode of The O.C., and (B) way too precious. It's as if, unsure of what tone he wanted, Mendes just gave up and had an "emo montage with indie folk song" button installed in Away We Go's editing bay.
But honestly, that's a minor blemish: For the most part, Away We Go is engaging and honest and funny and sweet, and a welcome change of pace from summertime's usual bombardment of blockbuster explosions and broad slapstick. Verona and Burt might very well be fuckups, and their meandering trip might not be the ideal way to find a home—but it's a journey well worth tagging along for, even if you'll wish they'd have thought to bring along a few different CDs for the drive.