Upon finishing Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (2008) it felt like the life had been drained out of me. While impeccably produced and acted, the film is so emotionally heavy and unrelentingly depressing, I am relieved there was not a firearm or straight razor within arm’s reach during viewing. I have the utmost respect for the caliber of the work but should it be so painful to endure? Almost as an anecdote, the director churned out the indie flick Away We Go (2009) within six months that is a total reversal in tone from his previous effort.
Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are unmarried and awaiting the birth of their first child when surprised by the news that his parents are leaving the country for two years with the kicker that they are departing before the due date. Since Verona’s folks are deceased (which is part of the reason she won’t get married) and the couple has no other local ties plus employment they can perform from anywhere (he is in insurance and she is a medical illustrator), they embark on a cross-country trip to visit friends and family and audition locales for a new place to call home.
What makes the leads such a commodity among today’s Hollywood romantic fare is they are deeply in love but not in a neurotic or desperate manner. Nor are they overly idealized in that they have real life issues worrying how qualified they are to raise their soon to be born child but with no show stealing melodrama. While Krasinski’s commendable turn as the well meaning but sometimes harmlessly clueless (his wardrobe choices involving plaid are criminal) Burt is not that far off course from his “everyman” portrayal as Jim on NBC’s the Office, Maya Rudolph jumps leaps and bounds beyond her goofy Saturday Night Live skits. As Mendes notes in the commentary, it took SNL alumni Bill Murray 20 years to become a serious actor and she falls into it so much easier. Her performance as Verona is a subtly nuanced revelation.
And let us not forget the merrily dysfunctional friends and family who provide some of the sharpest comedic bits throughout while educating through poor example on how not to be parents. Highlights include Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels as Burt’s hilariously self-absorbed family who see no issue in pursuing their dreams of European travel at the expense of being present for their grandchild’s birth. Allison Janney (the West Wing) plays against type in a creepily comical turn as a mom who is basically an overgrown adolescent herself making you fear for the future of her two pre-teens (though the exchanges with her kids are laughably guilt inducing), and Maggie Gyllenhaal (the Dark Knight) is a hard core feminist who has changed her name from Ellen to “LN” and perceives baby strollers as a form of societal mandated alienation from her son.
Away We Go suffers from a few slow points and moments where it is a bit too silly for its own good. Still these are easily overcome by many of the scenic vistas from the travels and more so the heartfelt portrayal of the main couple played as foils against the offbeat characters offering inadvertent parental guidance. This episodic road trip functions as a sincere contemplation of what “home” and “belonging” mean with Burt and Verona holding the narrative together as they co-exist in the self contained bubble of their impending pregnancy simultaneously out of synch with the real world and trying to find where they belong in it.
And now Universal gives us Mendes’ amenable, especially compared to his previous output, flick on Blu-ray with a very natural looking transfer and relaxed audio. Extras are minimal, but the commentary is very good. The disc is BD-Live enabled, but, as seems to often be the case these days, there is no content exclusive to the movie.
Mendes purposely utilized “old style” lenses and soft lighting to create a vaguely subdued look that supports the filmic texture on display in this 1080p transfer. Shot wide with a 2.35:1 framing to take in the scenic locales of the couple’s travels, colors are muted but well saturated and detail consistently impressive, most so in close-ups. Not razor sharp by any extreme, the visual feel is exceedingly natural with a nice sheen of grain, solid contrast and no obvious digital manipulation. Overall this is a very enjoyable high-def presentation that accentuates the celluloid over the digital aesthetic.
The film is dialog centric which comes through crisply on the included 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix. There is some rear channel use throughout for supporting ambiance but nothing to really draw your attention, and I’m not sure my subwoofer kicked in with the exception of the Phoenix dog track or the nightclub in Montreal. The soundtrack does notably provide a number of tunes from singer/songwriter Alexi Murdoch doing an awesome job channeling Nick Drake intertwined with a few Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Velvet Underground classics.
Additional audio is available in Spanish and French DTS 5.1mixes with optional subtitles in English (SDH), Spanish and French.
Commentary – Director Sam Mendes along with husband/wife screenwriting team Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida turn in an absorbing feature length track that displays great camaraderie and humor. They cover how the script was written when the couple was expecting their first child and the story’s roots as a pregnancy satire before taking on the deeper undertones in the final product.
Each scene spurs on anecdotes including related on location shooting and how the script acted as a starting point that led to much improvisation by the actors and which ones had trouble not cracking up during filming. A notably funny reminiscence from Mendes is how he told John Krasinski, while shooting Jarhead (2005), not to do the TV series the Office as it would surely be a flop. Well worth a listen.
Making of Away We Go (16:13, HD) – This fairly standard behind the scenes featurette has cast and crew giving mildly interesting input but does not go into the depth the commentary does.
Green Filmmaking (6:38) – Away We Go may be the first film to adopt “green” environmental policies that are detailed in this short piece. All involved in filming made an effort to recycle whenever possible and utilize minimal resources, including plastic and trailers, as needed. As commendable as the initiative is, it doesn’t make for the most interesting BD supplement.
I will not be surprised if I am in the minority, but I consider Away We Go among the best work Sam Mendes has produced. While not delivering the deep dramatic and Oscar worthy themes of his earlier cinematic output, the road trip narrative about a couple in search of “home” is very touching, well written/acted and lightly comedic. I find it to be the flick I will most likely revisit in the director’s catalog.
Universal do justice to the film’s realistic visual palette and turn in nice supporting audio on the Blu-ray release. The extras are a bit of a letdown with the well done commentary carrying the supplemental weight. Most will probably want to give this a rental to check it out, but I am very happy to add this title to my high-def movie collection.
– Robert Searle
Shop for Away We Go on Blu-ray at Amazon.com.