Movie Review: Away We Go

When I first saw the trailers for this film, I had great hopes. I was familiar with Maya Rudolph from Saturday Night Live. Frankly, at first I thought the lead male was Ashton Kutcher, and John Krasinski seems to be channeling aspects of Kutcher throughout. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t succeed much as a romantic comedy, nor is it thorough enough to be considered an intellectual probing of the nature of family or relationships. In the end, it comes off more as a string of curious encounters, punctuated with moments that are meant to be poignant, but without a greater overarching theme, end up more pointless than poignant.

Verona (Rudolph) and Burt (Krasinski) embark on a multi-city tour ostensibly to determine where they are going to live, since they have no reason to stay where they are. They are unmarried because Verona sees no point in the institution, and they are unexpectedly pregnant. The key setup for the movie is in a brief discussion they have near the beginning of the film, as they huddle in their trailer with no power and a “cardboard window”. Verona voices the fear that perhaps they are “f— ups”. Burt denies that they are, but the fear hangs heavy over both of them. By worldly standards, they do appear to be rather messed up. In their early 30’s, unmarried, pregnant, living in a trailer, driving an old car, without friends or close family, they appear to have somehow missed the boat compared with friends and family elsewhere. Their road trip is perhaps less focused on where they want to live, as who they want to be as a family.  They assume they have a lot to learn from others who have been doing this longer.

They visit an old co-worker of Verona’s in Phoenix, Verona’s younger sister in Tucson, a cousin of Burt’s in Madison, old college buddies of Burt’s in Montreal, and Burt’s brother in Miami. While each appears to be comparatively successful in material terms, all of them demonstrate profound dysfunctionalities that surprise, disgust, or trouble Verona & Burt. Typical of our post-modern, nothing matters but us sort of mentality, Verona refuses to marry. Ostensibly this is because her parents both died when she was in college, and she doesn’t want to get married if they can’t be present. But more accurate is her insistence that she doesn’t see the point, despite John’s obvious desire for them to be married. Verona is also depicted (again, somewhat typically these days) as the stronger, more intelligent of the two. The sorrow of her parent’s death seems to be intended to lend her a maturity and self-awareness that, while not complete, is farther along than the idiosyncratic Burt.

I find one comment and one scene in the movie to summarize best the film’s overall approach to family and relationship. When visiting friends in Montreal, these friends, who appear to be the perfect married couple and parents, confide honestly about how difficult it is to be a family. They live with a deep and abiding sorrow that overshadows their relationship (at least as depicted in the movie). “You have to be so much better than you ever thought you could be”, states the wife, Munch (Melanie Lynskey). The sense of the weight of parenthood is palpable. The best solution that Tom and Munch can offer? Lots and lots of love. You have to literally pour yourself completely into the relationship and into the family.

But the final visit, to Miami, demonstrates that this clearly isn’t the answer, either. Burt’s brother calls him to say that his wife has left him. He has no idea where she has gone, and he’s facing the reality of having to raise their 8-year old daughter alone. He’s clearly blown away by this, there was nothing that would indicate that his wife had been unhappy or that she had a proclivity for abandoning her family. But that’s the reality. No amount of love-pouring into the relationship prevented his wife from simply disappearing.  Our own efforts can never be enough.

The most meaningful final scene in the movie occurs as Verona and Burt are lying on a trampoline. A quiet moment amidst the ups and downs (figuratively and literally) of their lives and the lives around them. At issue is the stability of their relationship, and the unknowableness of the future. Verona may refuse to marry Burt in the traditional sense, but the two of them create their own marriage as they exchange a series of vows on that trampoline, ranging from the silly to the profound. They seek some sort of assurance from one another that they aren’t going to end up like the other people they’ve visited. That they are somehow different. There is the implication throughout the film that they *are* different, if only in that they can recognize how messed up everyone else is. They sought to learn from others how best to establish their home and family life, but come away with the realization that what they’ve learned is how *not* to be, and that they’re already much better equipped for life together and as a family than the rest of their family and friends.

It’s a bold assertion. There are no objective assurances in the film that they *are* better, other than their reactions and rejections of most of the other examples of love and family they see. Their choice of where to settle at the end of the film is a convoluted mixing of this bold independence, with the bittersweet understanding that there isn’t anything new under the sun, and sometimes the best way to be yourselves is to revisit and embrace your past. Philosophically (and theologically), the film is utterly depressing and void. No hope. No promise. The vows they exchange on the trampoline are meaningless, since they are essentially no different than the vows their friends and relatives have taken. If the implication is that some people really *mean* their vows, even though they aren’t traditional, formalized marriage vows, and everybody else doesn’t mean them, this is a pretty arrogant and baseless assertion.

Critics of the movie have panned it in part on this arrogance, this assumption that we have it right and everybody else is messed up. Yet at a certain level, I think the film is merely making a larger issue out of what many of us believe deep down. We *are* different. We *are* special. We *are* going to make it. At the same time, the film faces head on those fears that many of us entertain as well – the fear that we’re wrong, and that we’re not going to make it.

The film represents the continued struggle of people (and a culture) that have no source of meaning or hope or permanence beyond their own abilities, even though those abilities are clearly inadequate given the magnitude of the task of being married (officially or otherwise) and raising a family. As much as we like the idea of thinking about Burt and Verona making it in the long run, the film offers little assurance or hope that this will be the case. Burt and Verona have a long row to hoe together, but if all we ultimately have to rely on is ourselves, the rest of us aren’t in any better shape.

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