In Away We Go, a pair of adorable, smart, educated, self-employed 30-somethings discover that they’re going to have a baby. Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) live like college students in a shabby, rundown, unheated house with unreliable electricity. But they live near Burt’s parents: their future daughter’s only grandparents. Pretty sweet.
Then the soon-to-be grandparents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) excitedly announce that they’re moving to Antwerp – before the baby arrives. This is evidence of their self-absorption, and it prompts a crisis in Burt and Verona. They want to be good parents, not moving-to-Antwerp-type parents, and they want to raise their child in the sort of place that would allow for, as Burt describes it, an idealized sort of “Huck-Finny childhood.” Fair enough. A road trip ensues, as Burt and Verona visit various friends and relations in various locales, auditioning communities and neighbors for their nascent family. What they find is not good.
It is meant to be not good, in a funny way, in this movie directed by Sam Mendes and written by husband-and-wife literary team Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. And Away We Go is spasmodically funny, but also generally unpleasant. Their friends are all parenting disasters: caricatures of loud, obnoxious, self-absorbed individuals, or people suffocating in their own unhappiness and grief. There’s not a happy, well-adjusted, intact family in the bunch, and certainly not the sort of idealized, all-American family that Burt and Verona seem to be looking for. (But wasn’t Huck Finn’s father a mean, abusive drunk? Maybe they are finding that Huck-Finny childhood that they were looking for. Maybe Burt and Verona are barking up the wrong family trees.)
The friends all fail their auditions, but as caricatures they offer some comic relief in a film that is generally sort of mopey and wan (like the soundtrack, dominated by songs by Alexi Murdoch). The first failure is Verona’s former boss Lily (Allison Janney), a loud, vulgar drunk with a spray-can tan, sullen kids and an even-more-sullen husband (Jim Gaffigan). But Lily is no worse than Burt’s cousin LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a soft-spokenly strident Gender Studies professor who drives a Prius and is militantly opposed to putting her children in strollers. She takes Political Correctness and New Age hokum to the far end of the spectrum, where they are laid out for ridicule.
Janney and Gyllenhaal are both awfully funny, and their utterly awful mothers stand out in a movie in which maternal instincts have gone completely haywire, if they’re present at all. If the actresses were not such over-the-top hoots, you might feel bad about hating their characters as much as you are clearly supposed to hate them. But if Krasinski and Rudolph were not such cute and charming actors, you might also be inclined to slap them around a bit and tell them to grow up already.
Which is to say that Away We Go is occasionally amusing because of good performances and appealing actors, but it is not especially involving or interesting. There is something ad hoc and inauthentic about Away We Go; the characters never quite seem like real people who inhabit a real world. They are types, and the types are on display like diorama exhibits in a sort of Museum of Suburban Misery as imagined by gently smug, freewheeling young adults such as Burt and Verona.
We must extend the category of “young adult” here to include 30-somethings having a self-made crisis in which each exemplar of broken family tells them something about the sort of people they don’t want to be, and the kind of family they don’t want to have. Burt and Verona are hothouse flowers: Their foray into the world outside convinces them that they like living in a hothouse, and that they just have to find a different, better location for their hothouse and their little bud. They might want to rethink the Huck-Finny childhood, however.