Tuesday, July 28, 2009

'Away We Go' - Review by Santiago Ramos

This is a new feature for our blog and newspaper. Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He will begin studies toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College this Fall. We're very fortunate that he'll also be reviewing books and movies for The Catholic Key Blog and newspaper:

Away We Go
Focus Features
Dir. Sam Mendes, Scr. Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida

Reviewed by Santiago Ramos

“Why don’t you settle down already?” is not a new question, one that bears different meanings (Why don’t you assume your responsibilities already? Why don’t you get married already?), and always annoys. For a twentysomething, the question can come like a nudge from a rhinoceros: a gentle prod, but with a sharp, bony horn. Within each generation there are members of it who delay full entry into adulthood, sometimes out of fear, sometimes out of a desire to explore, and sometimes…—but it is not for a reviewer to exhaust all the possibilities. Let the sociologists try to do so. David Brooks, for example. In a column in the New York Times from 2007, he gave a name to this generational wandering, “The Odyssey Years,” while noting that the trend is becoming the norm rather than the exception within the post-Baby Boom generations. “During this decade,” Brooks writes, “20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.”

Away We Go, directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) and written by the married duo of Dave Eggers (author of the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and editor of the literary magazine McSweeney’s) and Vendela Vida (editor McSweeney’s companion, the journal, The Believer), is an apology for the Odyssey Years and for the Gen X-ers who are living them. Like a sci-fi flick that requires suspension of disbelief, this is a film that asks for the viewer’s sympathy with its characters, at least for its duration, so that the apologia can be fully developed—here, empathy only comes with sympathy. The artistic success of Away We Go lies, perhaps, in the number of people who retain their sympathy after the credits begin to roll. (My sympathy was retained, but, then again, I am a younger member of the cohort that the movie defends.)

It all starts with a baby. Burt Farlander (The Office’s John Krasinski) and Verona De Tessant (Saturday Night Live’s Maya Rudolph) are 33 and 34, respectively, and committed but unmarried. Burt is an insurance representative, working exclusively via cell phone, and Verona’s career is equally portable—she designs images for anatomy texts. The couple live frugally, but happily. In the first scene of the film, Burt and Verona realize that the latter is pregnant, but the drama truly begins later, once the couple learns that Burt’s parents are moving abroad and will not be around to help with the baby (Verona’s parents are deceased). Burt and Verona had expected to “lean pretty hard” on Burt’s parents, but they have other plans. Burt’s parents are a baby boomer couple, bourgeois bohemian (to use another Brooksian phrase) and they decide, quite blithely, to move to Antwerp, Belgium. Verona thinks this is selfish, but at least it forces the couple to grow up, without supports.

But no one can really live without supports. Thus the couple are thrust on a journey to find a new home and new friends, and they go to Phoenix, Tucson, Madison, Montreal and Miami to find one. That their journey is a search is established in the short scene in which they decide to leave their current home:
“We don’t have this basic stuff figured out.”

“Basic like what?”

“Basic like how to live.”

The last line is spoken by Verona, willfully if a bit melodramatically. The question is sincere, though, and when we can’t answer that question, it’s reasonable to wander around. They are wanderers with portable careers and a family that isn’t bound by marriage—Verona is hesitant to accept Burt’s proposal, even though she says she will never leave him.

The question behind the couple’s journey is crucial, so the viewer remains rapt from city to city. The episode in Phoenix is one of the toughest to watch, because Allison Janney has quite a nack—and I mean this as praise—for acting like a loud, psychopathic mother with a depressed husband. The scenes in Madison center on Burt’s family friend, “LN,” a New Agey college professor portrayed brilliantly by Maggie Gyllenhaal. A set piece around the dinner table and the sanctimonious lectures that LN and her husband inflict upon Burt and Verona show just how funny the Vida/Eggers team can be. The city that Burt and Verona most prefer, at least at first, is Montreal, where they meet some friends from college who married and adopted several children. From this couple, they get the most poignant piece of child-rearing advice: “You have to be willing to make the family with whatever you have”—virtue, selflessness, better nature.

“Whatever you have” usually includes, of course, traditions and inherited wisdom, and these are things that Burt and Verona and most of the people they meet are in short supply of. But at least Burt and Verona refuse to accept the status quo: “I really hate that attitude. Everything is already broken, so let’s keep on breaking it again and again,” Verona says. Again, the beginning of their redemption lies in assuming the task of searching for answers—an adult thing to do. By the end of the film, the couple seem to discover that the answers involve, to a certain degree, a return to their own roots, but the tension in their lives is not completely calmed. Perhaps now Burt and Verona will engage in some self-examination, something they didn’t do enough of in the film. And for us, the viewers, regardless whether we still sympathize with Burt and Verona after the credits roll, their questions will continue to provoke.