“It has a kind of a fruity taste,” says Burt to Verona, in the disarmingly candid and sweet opening scene of Away We Go, the new film by British director Sam Mendes. After American Beauty (1999) and Revolutionary Road (2008), the director once again navigates the bitter-salty landscape of American suburbia, and the fruity “it” in question is an unmentionable thing in a family newspaper. In the very next scene of the film, a much pregnant Verona, Burt’s wife, wakes up from blissful slumber. Get it?
Burt and Verona are a scruffy suburban couple, whose cold house has a hard paperboard for a window pane. They are in their thirties, with jobs that don’t require them to go to an office—a perfect anti-thesis to the dull, consumerist couples that Mendes lays bare in his films; Burt Farlander and Verona De Tessant are unlike Lester and Carolyn Burnham (American Beauty) or Frank and April Wheeler (Revolutionary Road).
They are outsiders who are smug in their being outsiders. Smart, but unwealthy; sensitive and caring, but wary of adult responsibility, Burt and Verona are the most unlikely of heroes.
I begin the review with Burt’s mention of the fruity “it” because not only does this scene establish, very succinctly, the comfort and tenderness that the two lovers share with each other, but because it could have been an apt description of the film itself.
Away We Go is a road movie about the long-time lovers, punctuated by vignettes of idiosyncratic (some loathsome) suburban people. Most of them are loud and magnified in their quirks. In contrast, Burt and Verona are cool and quiet in their ordinariness. They laugh at the couples they meet, but they are never a subject of mockery themselves, and their simplicity is not layered, all of which make the film preachy and sentimental in parts.
But then, who doesn’t glorify the idea of being happily cocooned in a life away from deadlines, complexities, ambitions and consumerist trappings? We have all thought about it at some point. Mendes, perhaps, needed to validate such a life-affirming, faux-naïve worldview, having translated the astringent world of Richard Yates in his last film, Revolutionary Road.
The premise of Away We Go is simple. The thirty-something couple (played endearingly by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolp) needs someone to help them raise their baby and they look for the support in Burt’s parents. But the parents, a pair of vivacious oddballs in their sixties, have decided to live in Antwerp for two years because they have always wanted to do that. Burt and Verona, disappointed, decide to hit the road in their beaten-down Volvo, in search of a place where they can safely and easily raise their daughter.
In course of this journey, they meet Verona’s former boss (Allison Janney), a woman in mid-life (with two overweight and sullen children), who is foul-mouthed, loud as well as grudgingly bitter about her husband and their boring life in Phoenix, Arizona. They meet Verona’s sister, the only person with whom Verona can share the sense of loss that she feels about her parents’ death. They meet Burt’s cousin (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a professor of gender politics who professes and practises New Age babble. Carrying her child around in a pram is a violation of the motherly intimacy she feels with her child: “Why would I want to push my children away from me?” she says, in an animated burst of paranoia, justifying her hatred for prams.
Next Burt and Verona visit Canada, forever the country of nice, happy people, to meet their old friends. The couple they meet here has adopted four children and are seemingly the happiest of the lot they have encountered so far. But beneath the bubbly euphoria, is a woman in the grips of acute depression, the only cure for which, her husband suggests, is a child that she can give birth to.
The love between Burt and Verona remains unalloyed through this all. They laugh at and with the people they meet and shed some tears too. But eventually Mendes seems to say: ‘Look how special they are. They are so ordinary and so cool’.
Will Burt and Verona find a home? Will they travel further or return to their past? After they reach their destination, until the very last scene, they are not quite sure whether they are in the right place—unlike the crushing finality with which Mendes’ other two films set in suburban American ends. The ambiguous end works for the light, straight story.
The performances of Krasinski and Rudolph hold the film together. As the deeply-in-love, normal-but-special couple, both the actors make their characters so winsome and convincing that anybody who is in a long relationship will relate to the little details they bring to their body language, facial expressions and speech when they are with each other. The writing is humourous in parts and has all the ingredients of a good, offbeat comedy. But unfortunately, the sentimentality and one-dimensional virtuousness of the lead couple come sorely in the way. This is not one of Mendes’ best.
Away We Go releases in theatres on 25 September.