It’s always a joy to discover hidden talent in one of my favorite performers. I always thought Maya Rudolph was one of the most talented performers on Saturday Night Live - not only is she beautiful, but she proved to be very versatile. In Sam Mendes’ Away We Go, Rudolph proves herself to be a surprisingly deep and soulful actress.
In a beautiful script by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, Rudolph stars as Verona, a woman who finds she’s pregnant with her partner, Bert (John Krasinski, The Office). Thrilled with the news, they decide they need a change and embark on a journey to find a place to settle down: their quest takes them from the Pacific Northwest to Tucson, Madison, Montreal and Miami, hoping to set down roots next to loved ones. Each stop has Bert and Verona confronting some sort of familial crisis that injects fear and doubt in their own parenting skills.
Once learning they’re expecting Bert and Verona visit his mom and dad (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara). Immediately their dreams of having grandparents for their daughter are dashed when it’s announced that Bert’s parents are moving to Belgium. Stung by this act of abandonment, Verona and Bert plot out their search for a home for their new family: Tucson is first on their itinerary, where she visits her sister, Grace (Carmen Ejogo) and a former workmake, Lily (Allison Janney) and her husband, Lowell (Jim Gaffigan). The visit with Lily doesn’t go well, as Lily has turned out to be a drunken nightmare and Lowell’s a boor. They look to Madison, where Bert is up for a job at an insurance company, and an old family friend named LN (pronounced “Ellen”), played by a game Maggie Gyllenhall, teaches at the University of Wisconsin. As with Tucson, Madison doesn’t go well either, as Bert doesn’t get the job, and his reunion with LN, who is every horrible cliché of granola-crunchy-hippie parent. Montreal starts of really well, and Bert and Verona love reuniting with college pals, Munch and Tom (Melanie Lynskey and Chris Messina). Their brood of multi-racial children would put Mia Farrow to shame; During their visit, marital tension and parental problems surface, and Bert and Verona flee to Miami to council newly single dad, Courtney (Paul Schneider), whose wife left him.
This is essentially a road movie, episodic in nature. Verona and Bert act as narrators in the film, and in each episode, supporting players get to chew the scenery. Obviously, O’Hara rules her scenes, doing wonders with what little she has; Janney also does her usual bravura performance, roaring into the scene, flamboyant and loud, reminiscent of Rosalind Russell in Mame. While not as forceful, Ejogo’s also wonderful as Verona’s loving and loyal sister. They share a beautiful scene, lying in a tub together in a showroom, reminiscing about their late parents. Tenderly running her hands through Verona’s hair, and holding her older sister in her arms, Grace reassures Verona that she’ll be a great mom.
Mendes does a fantastic job in this movie, moving it along at a great pace. Eggers and Vida also make sure that even when the story touches on tragic and heart-piercing moments, it doesn’t dissolve into saccharine schmaltz. That’s not to say that there aren’t any cuddly scenes – and the partnership of Bert and Verona is adorable – but the tension in their quest for stability instills enough drama and angst to ensure that they’re watchable.
Away We Go should make Rudolph a star – while Krasinski and the rest of the cast are great, it’s really Rudolph’s film. She carries with with a rueful humor. Her Verona is a smart, sometimes-sarcastic, and pragmatic woman – but there’s a lovely subtext of sadness with her. She carries the deaths of her parents with her – she doesn’t the deaths define her; instead she holds on to the loss, and allows it to adapt to any new developments in her life. It’s a crime that this tiny movie came and went without netting Rudolph some major industry awards.
Away We Go is the kind of comedy that works best: it’s funny without being ridiculous, and heart warming without resorting to cheap sentiment. It does indulge a bit in hipster cool – Krasinski’s scruffy hair and indie beard get a bit annoying, but there’s little-to-no artifice in this beautiful little film.