Midway through A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers’ solipsistic, terminally-apologetic-for-being-solipsistic portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-slacker-messiah, the author, upon interviewing to become a cast member of MTV’s The Real World, makes the following observation about his generation of self-obsessed, media-savvy technobrats: “These are people for whom the idea of anonymity is existentially irrational, indefensible,” Eggers writes. “And thus, there is a lot of talking about it all — surely the cultural output of this time will reflect that — there’ll be a lot of talking, whole movies full of talking, talking about talking, ruminating about talking about wondering, about our place, our wants and obligations — the blathering of the belle epoque, you know.” Not surprisingly, in Eggers’ first original screenplay, Away We Go, the characters never shut up.
While I don’t doubt — as multiple friends have assured me — that Eggers is a boon to the publishing industry (through his McSweeney’s imprint), a dedicated public servant helping to give our children a better education (through his 826 learning centers) and an all-around swell guy, as a writer he has an awful lot to say about not very much. In AHWOSG, the talk sometimes ran on for pages at a time — logorrheic monologues about how great it was to be young; how losing both your parents to cancer was, like, a bummer; and how Eggers himself really, really wanted to change the world without, of course, seeming like he was anything other than an ordinary, laid-back dude. In Away We Go (co-written by Eggers’ novelist wife, Vendela Vida), the characters similarly hem and haw about not knowing what they really want to do with their lives and whether, already in their early 30s, that makes them “fuckups.” (Yes.) They wonder if they’ll still love each other when they’re old and fat and ugly. Eventually, they romp around the country visiting friends and relatives who are ostensibly more settled down than they are, vicariously trying their lives on for size. The black hole that is Eggers’ navel here takes the form of bearded and bedraggled Burt (John Krasinski), a 33-year-old insurance futures salesman who — in a nod to the author’s attendant Peter Pan syndrome — disguises his voice when talking on the phone to clients to sound like what he thinks a grownup should sound like. Burt’s medical illustrator girlfriend, Verona (Maya Rudolph), is six months’ pregnant with their first child, but doesn’t want to get married — she’s too hip for that. As Away We Go opens, Burt and Verona have put down tenuous roots in Colorado to be close to his parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara). Then the folks announce that — surprise! — they’re moving to Europe, and our young parents-to-be take to the highway in turn, searching for a more meaningful existence.
Thus away they go to Phoenix for a rendezvous with Verona’s blowsy former colleague (Allison Janney) and her brood of sullen, inarticulate offspring; to Madison, for a reunion with Burt’s childhood friend (an amusing Maggie Gyllenhaal), now a self-righteous earth mother who disavows strollers and proselytizes the family bed; and to Montreal, where a couple of college classmates (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) have fostered a rainbow coalition of adopted children. At one point, Messina’s character holds forth with a speech about love and stability, using sugar cubes and maple syrup as visual aids, which may be the movie’s most purely Eggers-ian moment — twee, overwritten and profoundly banal.
These brief interviews with hapless and/or hideous parents are, I suppose, intended by Eggers and Vida as a comic panorama of contemporary child-rearing. Mostly, though, they form a gallery of grotesque family portraits that we can sneer at (sneering being a big part of Eggers’ ostensibly all-inclusive aesthetic), knowing that no matter what sort of parents Burt and Verona — and, by implication, those of us in the audience — turn out to be, they/we can’t help but be less fucked up than these freaks.
Away We Go was directed by Sam Mendes during a postproduction furlough from Revolutionary Road, and viewed side by side the films form a curious diptych — two portraits, separated by a half-century, of young couples trying to find their place in the world, one adapted from a writer (Richard Yates), who was among the most prescient of his generation, the other from a writer who ranks among the most precious of his. But whereas the Wheelers of Revolutionary Road had grand designs for themselves — to make art, to think great thoughts, to live la vie boheme — the road-trippers of Away We Go harbor no discernible ambitions whatsoever, which may make them true to Gen-Y life but also renders them fatally uninteresting as movie subjects. For all the ground they cover geographically, dramatically their velocity remains close to zero.
Mendes, too, seems to have trouble getting onboard with the underachieving set. His direction here is looser and less starchy than usual, less honorific and Oscar-worthy but still somehow on the outside looking in. When Mendes takes his camera off the tripod and puts a suite of Nick Drake sound-alike alt-rock ballads on the soundtrack, it’s a bit like watching someone’s dad dive into a mosh pit, or a Mumblecore movie made by David Lean. Yet that very disconnect somehow seems apropos. After all, this is Dave Eggers’ world, and the rest of us are just living in it.
AWAY WE GO | Directed by SAM MENDES | Written by DAVE EGGERS and VENDELA VIDA | Produced by EDWARD SAXON, MARC TURTLETAUB and PETER SARAF | Focus Features | ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark