Verona (Maya Rudolph) is pregnant. Her boyfriend, Burt (John Krasinski), is a college dropout, currently unemployed (although he'd sorta like to learn to whittle, or maybe build a kiln). They're in their early thirties, and getting worried. "Are we f---ups?" Maya wonders.
"Away We Go," directed by Sam Mendes ("Revolutionary Road"), never answers that question. The movie follows Burt and Verona on an apprehensive continental road trip in search of some kind of happiness. It opens in Denver, where they've relocated solely to be near Burt's parents (played by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) — who've just announced, in a fit of midlife whimsy, that they've decided to move to Belgium, possibly for quite a while. So, Burt and Verona hit the road, first to visit a sister in Phoenix (not the sort of place they'd want to live), and then to drop in on other friends and relatives in Madison, Wisconsin (not right either), Montreal and Miami.
Do they ever find residential contentment? The picture's meandering rhythm slowly drains our interest. However, along the way there are two great scenes. One is set in a Montreal strip club. No stripping is involved, but to the tune of the Velvet Underground's gorgeous "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'," we learn that two of Burt and Verona's now-married friends (played by Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) have a terrible, tragic secret. This is a brilliantly conceived interlude, with an overwhelming emotional power.
The other standout scene, in Madison, involves Burt's childhood friend Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who's grown up into an incredibly smarmy PC wingnut. Ellen is a proudly fertile, ostentatiously breast-feeding mom, and she flips out when Burt and Verona walk through her door with a gift of a baby stroller. "I love my babies," she whines. "Why would I push them away from me?" She also has some unusual child-birthing counsel for Verona. "The pain is so enlightening," Ellen says. "Now I watch CNN and I think I understand war." If Gyllenhaal has ever been more cuttingly funny than she is here, I look forward to finding out where.
The movie, which was written by Dave Eggers and his wife, Vendela Vida, concludes in a puddle of feel-good goo. But its tone throughout is oddly uncertain. Burt and Verona are intelligent people, and they don't seem to be especially strapped for cash. Are they, in fact, just f---ups? And if so, is there any particular reason why we should care?
Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," "Moon" and "Tetro," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "Away We Go."
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