Thursday, June 25, 2009

Chicken soup for the hipster soul

Director Sam Mendes finds some truth with his stand-ins

Posted on Thu, Jun 25, 2009 at 4:00 AM

****
Away We Go
Studio: Focus Features
Rated: R
Cast: John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Carmen Ejogo, Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels
Director: Sam Mendes
WorkNameSort: Away We Go
Our Rating: 4.00

There is a purpose that runs through director Sam Mendes' widely varied screen work, a noble, often quixotic quest on which entire multimillion-dollar endeavors (and careers) hinge: the search for a moment of perfect honesty. There is no question that a Sam Mendes picture will eventually land there; the only variable is whether or not what came before that moment has been worth sitting through.

The truth moment of Mendes' debut, American Beauty, was a stunner that won a few people Academy Awards and few others a ton of money. It's the scene in which Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) finally mounts the object of his lecherous lust ' high-school hussy Angela Hayes, played by Mena Suvari ' only to have her tearfully confess that she is a virgin. In that precise second, Spacey and Mendes show Burnham's reversion to patriarchal protectiveness; he covers her with a blanket and makes her a sandwich. The scene justifies the entire melodramatic farce of what comes before.

The same sense of revelation is felt in Mendes' follow-up, Road to Perdition, when Tom Hanks and Paul Newman play the piano side by side as Newman's disfavored son looks on, or in the problematic Jarhead when 'Don't Worry, Be Happyâ?� is substituted as these soldiers' 'Ride of the Valkyries.â?� (That moment wasn't worth it, and the movie failed. Likewise Revolutionary Road, which substituted a truth-telling character, played by Michael Shannon, for a moment-of-truth scene.)

With Away We Go, Mendes has found a film in which the couple at its center acts in place of the director. A scruffy John Krasinski and the lovely Maya Rudolph play an expecting couple who, upon learning that their safe haven of his parents' house has been nullified, set out on a cross-country trip to find a place to settle and build a family. They seek a truthful place, and Mendes does his searching along with them.

In their quest, the couple encounters a few examples of how they don't want to end up: sniping grotesquery, strangling new age idealism, a father whose wife ran off and left him with no clue except the knowledge that his daughter will be damaged forevermore.

As written by acclaimed novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida ' married with a child in real life ' this couple is provided with a couple of lucky breaks. For one thing, they haven't met the challenge of parenthood yet, only pregnanthood, so they have the luxury of sitting to the side of their friends' disasters and quite literally declaring themselves better than that. They also don't seem to worry about money. That's nice.

But their biggest break is that they are intelligent enough to know that they don't know anything and are willing to concede it to each other. Considering how easy Eggers and Vida have gone on them, it's good they earn that for themselves.

Krasinski is predictably lovable, if a bit of a goof, but his thankless role (which he pulls off wonderfully) is to act as a springboard for Maya Rudolph, who shows remarkable depth, warmth and command of the screen.

Away We Go is an unequivocal triumph for Sam Mendes, above all else because the honest moment he uncovers amidst this series of vignettes packs a wallop on par with Lester Burnham's. Without giving too much away, the couple seems to find the perfect place in Canada, where they reconnect with a couple who never conceived their own child but have provided a stable and healthy environment for a rainbow brood of adopted kids. Underneath the surface, however, lies the deepest kind of sadness, revealed through a monologue by Chris Messina (with a huge assist from Melanie Lynskey) that stands as one of the most human moments that I've seen from a film in years. And since Mendes films are entirely dependent upon just those moments, Away We Go is a big success.

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