On paper, Away We Go has everything-- great cast, prestigious director, tender concept, clever script from acclaimed novelists. Unfortunately, that's also where the movie gets tangled, in a script more interested in metaphors and deep emotions than a story or believable characters. Even with lovely performances from Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski and Sam Mendes' quiet visual style, Away We Go feels like a short story, an overwritten exercise, a twee idea dragged to feature length.
We're in trouble right from the main character's name, Burt Farlander (Krasinski), a guy who will spend the movie along with his long-term girlfriend Verona (Rudolph) searching for a place to raise their unborn baby. Farlander, get it? Because he has to travel to far lands to find home? Yeah, of course you do. After a funny prologue that opens in mid-coitus, the movie begins with Burt and Verona's visit to his oversharing parents, played by Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels. Don't get too attached to them, though, since before too long they announce they're moving to Europe, and Burt and Verona head out on their homesteading journey through Arizona, Wisconsin, Montreal and Florida.
In fact, don't get attached to anyone, as the supporting cast simply rotates in and out during Burt and Verona's trip, each of them demonstrating to the main couple, in glaringly obvious ways, how not to raise their baby. In Arizona Verona's shrill, overtanned friend (the great Allison Janney) and her blank husband (Jim Gaffigan) seem to be everything wrong with America in general, while in Madison, Wisconsin Burt's childhood friend LN (a hilarious Maggie Gyllenhaal) takes New Age touchy-feely child-rearing about 10 steps too far. College friends in Montreal (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) are raising a happy gaggle of adopted kids but shove their personal issues aside as a result, and Burt's brother in Miami (Paul Schneider) is wondering how to raise his little girl after his wife leaves him. Somewhere in there Verona meets up with her sister (Carmen Ejogo) and they talk, in a bathtub showroom for some reason, about the difficulty of their lives after their parents both died when the girls were in college.
Like Crash and Babel before it, Away We Go suffers by being a movie about a theme, meaning that every scene and every new character must somehow tie into the larger idea. Whether they're blatant caricatures (Gyllenhaal, Janney) or people you might want to know in real life (Messina, Lynskey and Schneider), all of the characters seem like they might have been far more interested were they not limited to on-the-nose statements about raising children and finding happiness in life. Just when anyone, Burt and Verona included, starts to feel like a real person, they use a stack of pancakes to make a metaphor about filling a house with love, or stop in just the right spot on the side of the road to form a picturesque tableaux that sums up their love.
Mendes gets some of the blame here, as his camera indulges some of the more obvious visual metaphors and makes everything pretty-- restaurants in dog tracks, chintzy motels, crappy cars-- at the expense of making it feel real. But mostly it's Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida's grating script, which has characters saying things like "Nobody's in love like us, right?" or having heart-to-heart conversations while a wife is onstage participating in an amateur stripper night. The juxtapositions and deeply felt conversations may feel fine on print, when the characters can be imagined, but seeing real people going through this, it strains all limits of credulity.
It's wonderful to see Rudolph and Krasinski taking on semi-dramatic roles, and at its best moments Away We Go is buoyed by their genuine rapport and insecurities. Anyone can relate with Burt and Verona's uncertainty over how to become grown-ups, how to make the decision to really begin your life. But as the quirky characters and overwrought monologues start piling up, the world Burt and Verona inhabit stops resembling the real one we know, and any chance they had of reflecting our own lives is squandered. Like LN and her crazy notions of proper mothering, the intentions in Away We Go are admirable, but in practice, it's just obnoxious.