- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

Finally — Sam Mendes has made a movie with more than a note of optimism in it.

That’s not to say “Away We Go” carries an unblemished view of America. Mr. Mendes hasn’t changed that much. Here he suggests, however, that while the state of the country might not be under your control, the state of your family is, and that’s where hope ultimately lies. The result is a buoyant film that doesn’t surpass “American Beauty” but certainly redeems the bleak-for-bleak’s-sake “Revolutionary Road.”

“Away We Go” might even be called a comedy, and its two leads come from two of television’s best-known laugh-fests. John Krasinski (“The Office”) and Maya Rudolph (“Saturday Night Live”) are Burt and Verona, a happily unmarried couple about to have their first child. The proud parents-to-be are shocked to discover Burt’s parents are moving to Belgium before the baby’s birth. Burt and Verona can work from anywhere, and they have nothing keeping them home now. They decide to take a whirlwind trip around North America to just about every city in which they have a friend or relative, looking to lay down roots in the best place to which they have some human connection.

What follows is an often hilarious travelogue in which they discover everything that’s wrong with everyone they know. They start in Phoenix, re-connecting with Lily (Allison Janney) and Lowell (Jim Gaffigan). Here we find Mr. Mendes’ usual distaste for American suburbia, but played for laughs this time. Miss Janney is priceless as a loudmouth who, in front of her children, remarks that her “butch” daughter “walks like a Teamster.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal is almost as memorable as a Wisconsin academic and earth mother who refuses to hide her lovemaking with hippie husband Roderick (Josh Hamilton) from her children, or push them in a stroller — that might result in children with separation anxiety who end up adults with Oedipal and Electra complexes.

Finally finding a happy family in Montreal, Burt and Verona think they’ll settle here — until Munch (Melanie Lynskey) reveals that even having a brood of well-adjusted adopted children hasn’t killed her pain at being unable to conceive her own.

“Away We Go” carries a lot of cliches but wears them lightly. The pitch-perfect acting helps make them new. (The always-great Catherine O’Hara’s few minutes on-screen as Burt’s comically self-centered mother aren’t dimmed by the hour that follows.)

There are a few missteps. The Montreal story is the most touching, but it makes the least sense, and the soundtrack, featuring music by talented singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch, can be overpowering at times.

The script, by husband-and-wife novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, has real heart, though, without being cloying. In slightly more than 1½ hours, it deals smartly with a wide range of big issues. At the heart of it is this couple who think no one else loves like them. Mr. Mendes’s camera follows them around the continent, often shooting two or four people at once, so we can see one talking and the reaction on another’s face. The couple ultimately decide, of course, that they can’t just attach themselves to an already-existing family — in the best American spirit, they must boldly create their own.

★★★

TITLE: “Away We Go”

RATING: R (language and some sexual content)

CREDITS: Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida.

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

WEB SITE: awaywegomovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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