Director Sam Mendes pretty much exclusively makes serious, important films. Three of his four features—American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road—were nominated for and/or won Oscars, and all of his work is aimed squarely at the awards-season sweet spot. Produced quickly right after Revolutionary Road (Mendes tends to take years between projects), Away We Go isn’t exactly a complete departure for the filmmaker—it’s a comedy, sure, but it has somber undertones and a few tearjerking moments, and its writing and acting is serious enough that award nominations aren’t out of the question. But for a filmmaker whose work can be called composed at best and airless at worst, it’s a rare illustration of his loosening up and taking a breath.
After the toxic marriage at the heart of Revolutionary Road, Away offers a refreshing antidote: Its protagonists, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), are a generally well-adjusted, happy couple who love each other and are expecting a baby (a situation they eagerly embrace). They’re also a nice counterpoint to the arrested-adolescent males who dominate mainstream comedies; neither is more (or less) ill-prepared than the other for what lies ahead. Their only real problem is that Burt’s slightly loony parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) have decided to move to Belgium, thus taking away Burt and Verona’s support system as well as the entire reason they live where they do.
Faced with an uncertain future both terrifying and exciting, they set off on a trip to find a new place in which to start their new family, along the way visiting friends and family who conveniently each teach the couple something about the kind of parents (and people) they wish to be. The structure of the screenplay by novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida is a little schematic, each section punctuated by a title card reading “Away to [Next City],” but Krasinski and Rudolph provide a strong through line with their warm, low-key performances, and succeed at making you root for Burt and Verona as future parents. Although both actors come from more broadly comedic backgrounds (Krasinski on The Office and Rudolph on Saturday Night Live), they shift effortlessly from silly gags to wistful introspection.
The supporting characters each get minimal screen time, and are by necessity a little one-dimensional, each essentially illustrating one trait for Burt and Verona to react to. Allison Janney, as a former co-worker of Verona’s who’s a completely irresponsible and self-centered parent, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Burt’s childhood friend who’s raising her kids according to some dicey new-age philosophies, offer the broadest and least grounded portrayals, but they also provide some of the movie’s funniest moments. Those stops (in Phoenix and Madison, Wisconsin, respectively) are the earliest on the tour, and later visits (to Burt and Verona’s college friends in Montreal and Burt’s brother in Miami) are subtler and carry more emotional weight.
This isn’t a movie that needs serious moments of revelation to work, though, and Mendes is surprisingly restrained in playing those out. It’s obvious where Burt and Verona are ultimately going to end up settling down from the moment someone mentions the place, but arriving at that destination doesn’t feel hokey or contrived, just inevitable. Mendes allows his actors enough room to connect with each other while still keeping a tight rein on shot composition and narrative pacing. It’s his slightest, most inconsequential movie yet, but that’s exactly what’s so nice about it.