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Away We Go

Without a Map

Compared to people in more restrictive societies, Americans pride ourselves on being able to live as we see fit, in a manner appropriate to the kind of person each of us may be. That there are still public debates over such morally inarguable issues as which people should be allowed to marry which other people (a simple matter of contract law, if you ask me) doesn’t alter the fact that, on the whole, the rising graph line of personal freedom remains pretty consistent.

The down side of that, of course, is that sometimes you yearn for examples to guide you through life. As Devo sang, “Freedom of choice/Is what you got/Freedom from choice/Is what you want.”

A lack of role models is the problem facing Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski), the central characters of Away We Go, as they prepare for the birth of their first child. In their mid-30s, they still live like recent college graduates, in a ramshackle, underheated exurban house in Colorado. The pregnancy, while not unwelcome, seems to have been unplanned, and while both have jobs they can perform at home, there’s a sense that this is maybe not how “real” people spend their lives. When their one tie to Colorado evaporates, they set out to find a new place to live, a journey that brings them in contact with a half dozen examples of how “grown-ups” live in our era.

Grown-ups are defined in contrast to “fuck-ups,” which is what Verona fears they may be, but the concept otherwise seems only to involve raising children: the notion that some people might live valid childless lives is foreign to the script by novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The folk encountered by Burt and Verona are a rogues gallery of exaggerated types, from the drunken suburban mom (a hilarious Allison Janney) who is oblivious to the degree to which she mortifies her husband and children, to the smugly intolerant New Age academic (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who can’t believe anyone would be stupid enough to put a child into a stroller.

Characters like these give weight to the critics who have complained that Away We Go takes a condescending attitude toward people who aren’t as thoughtful and intelligent as Burt and Verona. But they are funny, and other characters are rendered less broadly, like Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider), whose worrying over how he will be able to raise his daughter without a mother is one of a number of surprisingly touching moments on hand here.

The deck may indeed be stacked in favor of the main characters, but that doesn’t prevent Rudolph and Krasinski from investing them with sincerity and humanity. The same can be said for director Sam Mendes, working in a much looser and sunnier vein than his typically overdetermined examinations of unhappy American marriages (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road).

I only wish the film ended one scene earlier than it does, before Burt and Verona bring their trip to a conclusion. It’s a better ending than the one originally scripted (in which they moved to Costa Rica), but the movie would rest better in memory with an image of this couple still actively involved in considering how best to live. It’s not a question that ends when children arrive.

Watch the trailer for Away We Go

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