Dave Eggers may be the most important figure in contemporary literature, if not for writing the stuff (which he's awful at), then at least for deciding on an annoying style (a combination of children's-book rhythms and 19th-century vocabulary used to tell Raymond Carver-esque stories) that he's pushed down America's collective throat with his McSweeney's literary digest.
But he's also notable for finding a way to make being literary cool again, something each generation of self-involved hipsters must do for itself. I mean, there's nothing sadder than seeing a contemporary college kid reading On the Road or some Kurt Vonnegut book and thinking he's actually in tune with the zeitgeist.
So due to Eggers' style, I was a little frightened at the thought of watching Away We Go, a film he wrote with his wife, Vendela Vida. But I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable the film was. It's no masterpiece, and it aims far lower than it thinks it does, but for all that, it's passably decent.
John Krasinski of The Office and Maya Rudolph of Saturday Night Live star as a young-to-middle-age couple having their first child. There's a lot to like about this pairing. Krasinski has shown that he can play comedy without descending to shtick. He essentially reprises his Office role here, playing a guy who's too hip for his job and lacks much motivation to do better. What makes it work is that Krasinski is the master of "the look" that says far more than any dialogue could.
While Krasinski's performance is no surprise, Maya Rudolph's is. For the most part, SNL performers are atrocious actors. They tend to be incredibly broad, which works in a 3-minute, 40-second sketch, but can be grueling in longer works. Somehow, Rudolph escaped the SNL curse and can actually act. In part, she plays the straight woman, but her role is much deeper than that, and when asked to show emotion, she presents a complex mixture of feelings in stark contrast to her one-dimensional SNL cronies. There's also something nice about seeing a couple where the woman is older than the man, and she doesn't look like she just stepped out of a shampoo commercial.
The film starts in their dingy, unheated shack, where Rudolph, as Verona, does freelance illustrations for medical textbooks, and Krasinski, as Burt, is involved in insurance financing. In a scene in which Burt practices a lingual art upon Verona, he comes to realize that she is pregnant. Thus, in order to give the film a plot, they go around the country seeking a place to settle with their soon-to-be offspring.
This narrative structure is just a way for Eggers and Vida to present a set of short stories. In Phoenix, they meet Verona's old boss Lily (Allison Janney) and Lily's husband, Lowell (Jim Gaffigan), who make uncomfortable, drunken comments and harass their children with accusations of lesbianism and stupidity. The sequence is shallow and goes for cheap laughs, but it gets those laughs, which is something.
From Phoenix, they go to Tucson, then Madison, Wis., Montreal and Miami, meeting a one-joke couple or friend at each location as they decide whether these are people they'd want near their children. Except for the Montreal sequence, where the script attempts a subtlety and depth that's way beyond its powers, the sequences mostly work, hitting the romantic-comedy sweet spot with just enough laughter and sugar.
That's the oddest thing about this movie: It has all the pretensions of an indie film, and it's penned by Serious Writers, but it's really just a well-done rom-com. I think Vida and Eggers thought they were writing something artier, but the cheesy happy/sad ending and the collection of stock scenarios is pure Hollywood. Still, it's decently amusing Hollywood, and while this isn't the Oscar contender it thinks it is, it's a funny time at the movies.
The one thing it adds to the rom-com genre is the fact that the couple is together at the start of the film, so we don't have to witness any wooing. In fact, it's sort of like a sequel to a rom-com, happening a few years later, but with the same stock characters: the relatable male and female leads, their one-joke friends and their crazy parents. Then, instead of watching the standard rom-com plot of boy-meets-girl, boy-stalks-girl, boy-gets-girl, we just watch them agonize over whether or not they're too completely screwed up to raise kids, and then they meet people who are clearly too screwed up to raise kids, and those people have kids, so what the hell.
Director Sam Mendes does a good job coaxing interesting performances out of most of his cast, and he smartly points the camera at a lot of reacting faces instead of just aiming it at those who are speaking. The cinematography is workmanlike, creating a straightforward, information-first account. The downside is that the story and dialogue get some eye rolls when the film attempts to get deep. But Krasinski and Rudolph charm; supporters Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal are hilarious; and the script has enough laughs to see it almost through to the end.