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Riding to Perdition: Sam Mendes's "Away We Go"

By Jeff Reichert | Indiewire June 1, 2009 at 1:42AM

Sam Mendes is quickly amassing one of the most idiotic contemporary bodies of work that otherwise reasonable people consider credible. His fifth film, "Away We Go," continues the Brit stage director's track record of tackling different eras in the American experience (earlier: the Thirties in "Road to Perdition," the Fifties in the god-awful "Revolutionary Road," and the two diametrically opposed halves of the Nineties in "Jarhead" and "American Beauty"), only to refract them back to us as collections of inanities. Maybe his films play better overseas where many generally assume the worst of us Yanks, but his stultifyingly fussy camera (usually needlessly fitted with cinemascope lenses) sucks the air out of nearly every scene like vacuum pump. This is made easier, I suppose, by having all his characters perform as though they might live in outer space (see Kate Winslet's halting student theater workshop delivery in "Revolutionary Road," Annette Bening's hysterical fits of self-flagellation in "American Beauty," Jake Gyllenhaal trying out masculinity in "Jarhead"). I imagine actors love working with Mendes -- it's obvious he lets them do whatever they like. Go on, try watching "American Beauty" again, a decade later, and take any of it -- the kiddie porn, the mishandled gay characters, the big weighty theme parts, that darn beautiful trash bag -- seriously. (I recently attempted and failed.)
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Sam Mendes is quickly amassing one of the most idiotic contemporary bodies of work that otherwise reasonable people consider credible. His fifth film, "Away We Go," continues the Brit stage director's track record of tackling different eras in the American experience (earlier: the Thirties in "Road to Perdition," the Fifties in the god-awful "Revolutionary Road," and the two diametrically opposed halves of the Nineties in "Jarhead" and "American Beauty"), only to refract them back to us as collections of inanities. Maybe his films play better overseas where many generally assume the worst of us Yanks, but his stultifyingly fussy camera (usually needlessly fitted with cinemascope lenses) sucks the air out of nearly every scene like vacuum pump. This is made easier, I suppose, by having all his characters perform as though they might live in outer space (see Kate Winslet's halting student theater workshop delivery in "Revolutionary Road," Annette Bening's hysterical fits of self-flagellation in "American Beauty," Jake Gyllenhaal trying out masculinity in "Jarhead"). I imagine actors love working with Mendes -- it's obvious he lets them do whatever they like. Go on, try watching "American Beauty" again, a decade later, and take any of it -- the kiddie porn, the mishandled gay characters, the big weighty theme parts, that darn beautiful trash bag -- seriously. (I recently attempted and failed.)

"Away We Go"'s protagonists, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), are two disheveled postmillennial (in a stroke of foresight, seemingly post Dubya as well) Grups who just haven't quite figured out this crazy thing called life. How ironic then, it is that they're about to have a baby! How can they possibly procreate when they don't even know what they're doing themselves?! Wait, Burt's parents are moving from Colorado to the hilariously named city of Antwerp? And our heroes were only living in their own snowbound Rocky mountain shack because it was close to Burt's family? What to do? Well, before you can say "big ironic intertitles" the pair is off on a cross-country journey (punctuated with big ironic intertitles) to meet up with old friends and decide on the best place to settle and raise their impending bundle of joy.

The horror show that follows takes Burt and Verona from Allison Janney's crassly negligent vision of motherhood in Phoenix to Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton's creepy Madison New Agers, to Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey's stable (but with a tragic secret) brood of adoptees in Montreal. At each stop the pair learns a little something more about family and the parents they'd like (or not like) to be. Mendes somewhat predictably skimps on location detail -- every stop could be in Kansas for all we see of the geography. Along the way, Krasinski mugs through an ill-fitting beard while Rudolph fares better dutifully playing his more sensible, soulful foil. This is all well beyond the merely twee (Belle and Sebastian sport larger cojones), and the cute overload is only heightened by the machine-tooled precision of the filmmaking. Like all Mendes films, "Away We Go" runs like a finely wound clock, but one with the face removed -- we can't tell time on it, so all we can do is admire the workings of the mechanism. His films always feel self-conscious, as though they're acted by actors, shot by cinematographers, and edited by editors, and his oeuvre thus far makes him seem less a Brechtian interested in artifice than an interloper from another medium who's absorbed a whole bunch of the classics.

"Away We Go" was cowritten by husband-and-wife literary duo Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, and their preciousness intermarries all-too-well with Mendes's cool perfectionism. Knock McSweeney's all you like (there's ample room), but Dave Eggers isn't to be taken too lightly. He can turn a phrase, credibly inhabit a voice (see his Sudanese Lost Boy memoir "What Is the What"), and he even approaches real empathy when he's not too busy burying it in layers of extraneous writing. There are good ideas in "Away We Go," some sensitive stuff about parenthood and family that feel lived-in (and mesh well with Eggers's biography as sketched out in "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"). However, these shards of insight often get tricked up on their way to the screen -- Verona and her sister discussing the deaths of their parents while trying out a model bathtub in a showroom; a college friend tearfully relating to Burt the troubles he and wife have had conceiving a child while his better half exorcises the pain of a recent miscarriage by . . . performing an impromptu pole dance at a strip club amateur night? What is it they say about the best intentions?

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently directing his first film, Gerrymandering.]

This article is related to: In Theaters, Away We Go





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