“No one’s in love like us, right? It’s so weird,” Verona (Maya Rudolph) tells Burt (John Krasinski) early in Sam Mendes’s Away We Go. The two are an unmarried but deeply committed couple crisscrossing the United States in search of the perfect place to raise the baby Verona is expecting. The proximate cause of her amorous observation is an encounter with an old co-worker (Allison Janney) negligently raising a red-state family in Phoenix, Arizona. But the sentiment--of Verona and Burt’s specialness, and a world that just can’t help but keep letting them down--is a recurrent theme of the film.
As Verona and Burt venue shop for their impending parenthood, the friends and family they visit fall into two loose categories: comic grotesques, who predominate in the first half of the film; and lovelorn--in one fashion or another--confidants, who mostly populate the latter. The grotesques include John’s wealthy, self-absorbed folks, who abandon the expectant couple to move to Antwerp, and Janney’s drunken, foul-mouthed anti-mom, who declares, in front of her preteen daughter, that she believes the girl to be a “dyke” and asks, “Did you see her ass? She’s got junk in the trunk.” Lest one imagine that the film, written by real-life novelist-couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, looks down on Middle America, however, a subsequent scene pokes fun at a neatly balanced blue-state target, a Madison, Wisconsin academic (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who repudiates strollers (“Why would I want to push my baby away from me?”) and believes it’s healthy for children to watch their parents have sex. (Hence the “family bed.”) I don’t think I’ve seen quite so meticulous an example of political triangulation since Dick Morris left the White House.
These scenes are intermittently witty, but there’s something a touch sour about them as well. David O. Russell’s extremely funny Flirting with Disaster covered similar thematic ground--in that case, a couple that runs into an array of freaks while roaming the country in search of his birth parents--but the protagonists were themselves frequent targets of the movie’s satire. In Away We Go, by contrast, Burt and Verona resemble Goldilocks’s experience with Baby Bear's belongings: neither too left nor too right, too selfish nor too selfless, but always just right.
As the movie shifts gears to emphasize the travelers’ quieter encounters--with Verona’s sister, Burt’s brother, and a pair of old college friends--the caustic wit disappears, to be replaced by episodes of quiet melancholy: a wife who’s left, a boyfriend who underwhelms, a tragic family secret. (This last is revealed by a husband as his wife performs a mournful amateur pole dance to the strains of the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”--a scene at once disconcertingly creepy and absurdly overdetermined.) The somber pity the film offers in these sequences may not be as in-your-face as the comic contempt that came earlier, but the underlying message is similar: Thank God Burt and Verona aren’t like that.
The film is not without its moments. Janney and Gyllenhaal have an awful lot of fun planting their flags at the opposite poles of cultural caricature. And leads Rudolph and Krasinski are eminently likable, despite the preciousness and self-satisfaction with which the script often saddles them. You may very well enjoy Away We Go more than I did. But rest assured that you will never love this movie as much as it loves itself.