Sam Mendes did caustic satire with “American Beauty” and “Jarhead,” marital angst with “Revolutionary Road,” and tender familial relations with “Road to Perdition.” His fifth film, “Away We Go,” combines all of that into a funny, good-hearted comedy about soon-to-be parents whose desire to give their baby the best possible upbringing fills them with terror. Like all of Mendes’ films, this one brims with recognizable feelings, and the parents, played by Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski, are so down-to-earth they seem like two of your closest friends.
They play Burt and Verona, longtime partners who have not yet married because she (not he, for a change) sees no reason for it. Verona’s parents are dead, and the couple lives near Burt’s parents, aging hippies (played amusingly by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) who say grace by praying to the “almighty food gatherer” and who are thrilled to learn Verona is pregnant. Not thrilled enough to put off their plan to move to Europe for two years, though.
Now Burt and Verona have no reason to live in this unnamed area (it looks like upstate New York), and no significant roots in any other cities, and their careers (he works in insurance, she is a commercial artist) could easily be pursued anywhere. Why not move? Why not settle someplace they can really call home?
The film is constructed simply from there: They visit several possible cities, based on having friends or relatives there, to see which one feels right for them and their unborn baby. In the process, they encounter several examples of terrible parents of one stripe or another, and their eyes are opened to just how fraught with peril the whole parenting thing is. Anyone with children can relate. I don’t even have children, and I can relate. This panic, this angst, this fervent desire to get it right — what rational parent never felt this?
In Phoenix, they meet up with Lily (Alison Janney) and Lowell (Jim Gaffigan), whom they knew when they all lived in Chicago some years earlier. Lily is a loud, coarse woman with no sense of decorum, and she and her husband treat their kids the way you treat your couch. You like it, and you don’t abuse it, but you don’t really pay attention to it, either.
In Madison, Wis., it’s the opposite story. Burt’s old friend LN (pronounced “Ellen,” played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her dippy partner Roderick (Josh Hamilton) are smug, namaste-saying, New-Age-babble-believing idiots who smother their kids, share a huge “family bed,” and reassure their mush-brained spawn that they’re too special to ever do anything as crass as “work for a living.”
It’s in Montreal that Burt and Verona finally see some good examples of parenting done right, but a meeting in Miami with Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider) — a newly single parent — reminds them once again just how hard the whole thing is.
The screenplay is by indie-hipster writer Dave Eggers (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) and his wife, Vendela Vida. Fans will recognize Eggers’ intelligence, his fondness for words and their meanings, and his interest in parenting issues. The humor is occasionally benign (there’s a running joke about how Verona is only six months pregnant but looks nine), but it’s more often barbed, with the sharp ends pointed at the buffoons Burt and Verona keep encountering.
It’s easy to go wrong with that sort of thing, to make it seem like the protagonists think they’re better than everyone. Rudolph and Krasinski are so likable, though, that it works — and besides, it’s not like they go around mocking their acquaintances. The movie mocks them, and we laugh at them, but Burt and Verona themselves are more bewildered than anything.
In many ways, this is an intriguing departure for Mendes, a chance to try his hand at warm satire (if there is such a thing). If nothing else, it’s a balm for viewers who are put off by the depressing “Revolutionary Road.” Here’s a happy couple striving to do the right thing. Kind of uplifting, isn’t it?
B+ (1 hr., 38 min.; )