Sam Mendes makes movies that feel like department store displays (meticulously arranged, shrink-wrapped, and airless), which is why Away We Go is something of a surprise. A road-trip comedy in equal measures bittersweet and hopeful, Mendes's latest boasts few of his stuffy aesthetic trademarks, radiating a relatively loose, light, ragamuffin spirit due in part to the director staying out of the way of his script, penned by A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius author Dave Eggers and wife Vendela Vida.
Shot on the quick during editing of last year's inert suburban cautionary tale Revolutionary Road, the film feels unshackled, as if Mendes had neither the time nor the inclination to indulge in the formalist grandstanding that has become his signature. Free from incessant storyboarding, most of his energy and care is directed at crafting an atmosphere at once humorously nimble and poignant. It's a balancing act not executed with complete aplomb, with the story's pathos and farce often succumbing to cutesy broadness. However, in its clear-sighted focus on the emotional turmoil wrought by adulthood and the accompanying desire for mature self-definition, this relaxed faux-indie portrait of two thirtysomethings coming to grips with impending parenthood is nonetheless Mendes's first small step in the right direction.
That step, however, begins with a quirky stumble, as Burt (John Krasinski) notices that longtime girlfriend Verona (Maya Rudolph) tastes different during oral sex and immediately deduces the cause: pregnancy! When they break the news to Burt's weirdo parents (amusingly idiosyncratic Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels), only to discover that the grandparents-to-be have made plans to move to Antwerp for two years, the couple leave their middle-of-nowhere abode to embark on a multi-stop trip to find a new home and, with it, a clearer notion of how to cope with their forthcoming adult lives. In its alternation between comedic and dramatic pit stops, this template faintly recalls Flirting with Disaster, albeit with a less sturdy tone, the vacillations from mirth to moroseness leaving the proceedings feeling wobbly and stitched together.
On the plus side, an initial visit with Verona's bizarre former coworker (Alison Janney)—who, at the dog track, brays about her saggy breasts and dyke daughter within the kid's earshot—makes up for its shaky rhythm and mild condescension with choice one-liners. The same doesn't hold true, however, of their later visit to Burt's bonkers new age-y childhood friend (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who's an easy-target caricature, and their meeting only really makes a dent during a stroller-aided punchline that affords easygoing Burt a long-awaited moment of angry initiative.
While Krasinski and Rudolph prove sharp during Away We Go's funnier sequences, it's their nuanced-enough dramatic turns that lend needed weight to the later-going's increasingly smushy incidents. Though the script occasionally exhibits Eggers's smarty-pants preciousness, and its episodic structure affords a too-schematic procession of marital and parental examples from which Burt and Verona can glean insight, the leads' silent reactions and shared glances create a rapport more believable and authentic than their self-actualizing circumstances. Aside from using Alex Murdoch's Nick Drake-ish songs as blaring underlines, Mendes lets his material breathe through patient pauses in the action, warm, comforting cinematography (courtesy of ace Ellen Kuras), and edits that don't press points too insistently.
A college friend's (Melanie Lynskey) slow pole-dance expression of misery over a recent, fifth miscarriage is the script's most resolutely melodramatic scene. Yet Mendes refuses to linger in an unseemly manner, capturing the character's heartache with just enough gentleness to avoid crass exploitation. That restraint is also tenuously maintained in separate third-act speeches by Burt and Verona that touchingly (if squishily) locate the fear, hope, regret, longing, and joy that accompanies the birth of one's first child—sentiments which Mendes, having taken the initiative to shed his worst habits and bolstered by a just-this-side-of-twee script, captures with an understated earnestness that had previously eluded him.