Movie comes up short on plot, drama but has good actors

By Colin Covert

“Away We Go” feels like notes toward a draft of a screenplay. Most of the necessary material is there.

We have our protagonists — a rootless, pregnant couple feeling their way into the world of adult responsibility. Plot: They’re scouting the best environment to raise their child by visiting family and friends. Tone: Indie-quirky-cutesy-hip. Structure: That old reliable road-movie configuration. Symbolism: A sickly “family” tree decorated with plastic fruit. Eccentric minor characters: Check. If you could assemble films from a shopping list, this would be a reasonable start.

And yet as the ambivalent pair visit Miami, Montreal and elsewhere in search of their destiny, nothing resembling a fleshed-out movie emerges. Husband-and-wife novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, who wrote the screenplay, work diligently to master their new medium, but from the clunky chapter-by-chapter presentation onward, they score only intermittently. By my count, two episodes succeed and half a dozen fall flat. Your mileage may vary.

After the sturm und drang of “Revolutionary Road,” director Sam Mendes opted for a looser, lighter story, and he assembled a fine cast. As the questing couple, towering John Krasinski as Burt and beach ball-bellied Maya Rudolph as Verona are a visual joke. They look like an exclamation point and a period out for a stroll.

They’re an unlikely couple, but then what couple isn’t? He wears the bemused smile of a man hoping for the best. She, haunted by her parents’ deaths years earlier, looks perpetually worried. His defining character trait is his repeated declaration that he will always love her even if it takes, like, months for her to lose her baby weight. I never got a solid sense of what’s in their heads, maybe because these not-grown-up characters haven’t decided yet.

Comedy champs Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara fare better as Burt’s blithely selfish, unhelpful parents, a couple so cluelessly ego-absorbed they don’t register that other people have feelings to hurt. Allison Janney shoots Roman candle sparks as a brassy, harebrained co-worker of Verona’s, so inappropriate in her parenting that her kids may as well sign up for preemptive psychotherapy.

Good as Janney is, Maggie Gyllenhaal tops her in a performance that has Best Supporting Actress stenciled across it in gold leaf lettering. She plays a childhood friend of Krasinski’s who has parlayed a trust fund and a penchant for loopy gender-theory pronouncements into a faculty position at UW-Madison. She is insufferably condescending and laugh-your-pants-off funny as she prattles on about sexual lessons to be learned from “the seahorse community,” and rails against the insidious influence of baby strollers.

“I love my babies,” she announces. “Why would I want to push them away from me?”

While the film is amusing in short bursts and boasts some sharp dialogue, it’s weak on plot and drama. Long, loooong stretches are devoted to instructing us that raising children is no job for neurotic perfectionists. With its hand-drawn main titles and wincingly twee attitude, “Away We Go” is a contrived attempt to jump on the “Juno” bandwagon. It falls right off again.

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