Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Away We Go

In my list of things we did in NYC, I included seeing the movie Away We Go in a Chelsea theatre. So, what did we think?

I said in a Facebook status update:

John Althouse Cohen saw Away We Go and it was OK.
Someone asked:
What's that one about? How do I not know about this?
I responded:
John Krasinski (Jim from The Office) and Maya Rudolph (from SNL) are in a relationship, and she unexpectedly gets pregnant. They realize they aren't tied down by anything, so they go on a trip to multiple cities (including Madison, WI), visiting friends and family to try to figure out what kind of life they want to have together.
(I mentioned Madison because the person I was talking to and I both grew up there.)

Someone else asked:
not oppressively smug as a review I read suggested?
I responded:
It definitely wasn't "oppressively smug." If anything, I wish it had been more ambitious and taken more chances. It was too modest and low-key, though I generally liked the low-key quality. The main characters spend almost all of the movie in a daze -- slowly, passively taking in lessons from one family after another. They come to the underwhelmingly reasonable epiphany that they should try to emulate the families they like and avoid the mistakes they've seen people make.
(The person who asked that question might have been thinking of the New York Times review, which oddly says, "Does it sound as if I hate this movie? Don’t be silly. But don’t be fooled. This movie does not like you.")

The part of the movie in Madison is the most heavy-handedly satirical. It focuses on a surreally flaky, maddeningly judgmental new-age couple. One reviewer said they illustrate the folly of disregarding "human nature," but I think that conclusion is off the mark. For instance, they insist on home births, saying that hospital births are emotionally scarring. They sleep in the same bed as their children and (again) have some theory about why separate bedrooms are harmful. The mother has such a strong objection to using a stroller ("Why would I push my baby away from me?") that she barely conceals her revulsion when the lead characters give her a stroller as a gift. Are any of these things unnatural? I have nothing against strollers or hospital births or parents sleeping in separate beds from their children, but I'll admit that my views aren't based on an allegiance to "human nature." Like just about everyone, I'm willing to dispose of nature when I happen to find it convenient to do so. The problem with the Madison couple isn't that they disregard human nature; on the contrary, they're so off-putting because they exalt the idea of nature and abhor anything that smacks of social construction.

But my favorite lampooning of the Madison left wasn't the couple. It was a brief instant when the lead characters first arrive in town, are walking around the University of Wisconsin campus, and pass by protesters holding a huge sign saying:
That transported me to my days of being a UW-Madison student in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, bewildered that most people I talked to felt that the only appropriate response to the attacks was to criticize America. The left has a distinctively unfathomable way of being wrong on foreign policy. When conservatives say things about foreign policy that I disagree with, I can at least understand what's driving them. I might disagree with their values or even their facts. (For instance, I disagree with those who say Iraq had WMDs right before we invaded; furthermore, even if Iraq had them, I disagree with the idea that this would have been bad enough to justify going to war.) I can still understand how someone with their set of facts and values could arrive at their conclusion. But when lefties say, with a tone of revelatory self-righteousness, that "we trained bin Laden!," I don't even understand how they get from that assertion to any kind of prescription about what anyone should do in the future.

Back to the movie: my biggest complaint about it isn't whether it was too this or too that (too arrogant, modest, scathing, bland, etc.) in any particular scene. The problem is on a larger scale: the characters start as blank slates and end up as ... blank slates. There's so little conflict in their relationship that they have a running joke about how they need to pretend to get in fights, because they never get in real ones. John Krasinski's character has some not-particularly-interesting struggles in his career path, and these struggles are ... never resolved, just left hanging, as if there were a sequel planned. Maya Rudolph's character starts the movie in the early stage of pregnancy with her first baby, and ends the movie ... in the late stage of pregnancy with the same baby. The movie is all about the fact that these two people are going to be parents of this child, and we never see the child or what they're actually like as parents. None of the families they meet along their road trip has any kind of dramatic arc that we get to witness first-hand; they're all like tableaus that exist for the two lead characters' edification.

I should add that some of my favorite movies have very little conventional plot: My Dinner with Andre, Slacker, Zazie dans le Metro, etc. I'm not one to say, "That movie was terrible -- there was no plot!" But Away We Go is no Slacker and certainly no My Dinner with Andre. It doesn't invite you into a little world that's satisfying on its own terms; it sets you up to expect more of a dramatic pay-off than it delivers. (The adventurous-sounding title is unfortunate.)

Another problem: this movie is nominally a comedy. Danielle and I both agreed that we laughed a few times, but we couldn't remember anything in the movie about which we could honestly say, "That was so funny!" The laughter from the audience usually sounded a bit polite, never uproarious.

The movie looks great, particularly the sets. If you're in the mood for an unusually low-key movie, I'd give a lukewarm recommendation based on overall aesthetics, sweetness, and poignancy. Just don't expect much of anything important to happen. After we watched it, we talked about it for a long time, but not because we had strong reactions (positive or negative). We had a lot to say because it seemed to be made by (and about) such thoughtful, decent, likable people, but it fell so far short of its potential.

Finally, I want to highlight Roger Ebert's perfect response to the reviews that says it's too smug:
Burt and Verona are two characters rarely seen in the movies: thirtysomething, educated, healthy, self-employed, gentle, thoughtful, whimsical, not neurotic and really truly in love. Their great concern is finding the best place and way to raise their child.... For every character like this I’ve seen in the last 12 months, I’ve seen 20, maybe 30, mass murderers....

The almost perfect relationship of the unmarried Verona and Burt seems to survive inside a bubble of their own devising, and since they can blow that bubble anywhere, they of course find the perfect home for it, in a scene of uncommon sunniness. They have been described as implausibly ideal, but you know what? So are their authors, [Dave] Eggers and [Vendela] Vida. They are thirtysomethings. With two children. Novelists and essayists. He publishes McSweeney’s, she edits the Believer.

They are playful but also socially committed. Consider his wonderful project “826 Valencia,” a nonprofit storefront operation in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Boston and Ann Arbor, Mich. It runs free tutoring and writing workshops for young people from ages 6 to 18. The playful part can be seen in San Francisco, where the front of the ground floor is devoted to a Pirate Store. Yes. With eye patches, parrot’s perches, beard dye, peg legs, planks for walking — all your needs.

I submit that Eggers and Vida are admirable people. If their characters find they are superior to many people, well, maybe they are.


beckett said...

Indeed I was referring to the NY Times review.

Thanks for your thoughtful and enjoyable post. Now I'd like to see the movie (sometime after July 29!).

By the way, one of my favorite movies, Waking Life, is also essentially plotless.

OK. Back to bar study now . . .

John Althouse Cohen said...

Hmm, I didn't like Waking Life nearly as much as Slacker (by the same director).

Glad you liked the post...

Good luck on the 28th and 29th!

Beth said...

Thanks for linking to the Ebert review.

I have never read anything substantial by Eggers - I don't know how I've overlooked him. I do read McSweeney's occasionally (I used this one in a class once and loved it). I enjoyed Ebert's reminder that good people can make for interesting characters.

On that note, I'm looking forward to Egger's new book, Zeitoun, for the same reason.

Mazur said...

I grew up in Madison as well, and truly love it, and so, was very excited when I heard about an Eggers/Mendes collaboration taking place in part there. However, living abroad in Taiwan, I have no hope of seeing it for a year at least, and am dying of curiosity.

By your post, it sounds like the film nailed madison's gift/curse as a liberal bubble. But how did it show madison visually? As a fellow native, do you think it was represented well?