Away We Go begins inauspiciously. The words “Directed by Sam Mendes” appear to be, frankly, a barefaced lie. Mendes makes pictures of modest, crisp beauty, while this looks like someone wouldn’t spring for a bulb of sufficiently high wattage and a harried costume designer did a last-minute dash around the sale rails. Something is up. But this is Mendes with his shoes off. It requires a different mindset, but it envelopes you like a hug.
Almost bravely, Mendes’ indie-style makeover posits a relationship all too rarely seen in cinema, TV or literature: one where the couple are completely and happily in love, without underlying secrets waiting to ruin everything. Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) have been together a long time, have no plans to marry (she won’t, for understandable reasons — it’s not an issue), are about to have a baby and want to raise it somewhere other than the dreary town they currently call The Place We Live At The Moment. So they traipse cross-country to visit pretty much any friend who has ever reproduced, their story wandering happily between comedy road trip and thirtysomething coming-of-middle-age drama.
Happiness is a difficult narrative concept to maintain, being, by definition, free of dramatic incident, but the lead couple are so charismatically written and played that even an uneventful trip on a train becomes high comedy. Those they meet along the way — including Allison Janney as a woman whose key parenting trick is severe mocking, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the worst kind of evangelical Earth mother — are frequently broad and caricatured, but they’re balanced by the utterly believable leads, who seem themselves unable to believe these people are quite real. Krasinski is effortlessly likable as Burt, but Rudolph is a knockout. An SNL alum almost unheard of in this country, she gives a faultless performance, low on words and high on meaning.
This is not an ‘important’ film likely to receive the Oscar hype Mendes usually attracts (that seems to be much the point), but it’s a charming look at one of today’s best directors cheerfully cutting loose.