"Away We Go" is a self-satisfied film about insecure people, a quirky and episodic comic drama that squanders its genuine assets and ends up not as special as it tries to be.
Directed by Sam Mendes (an Oscar winner for "American Beauty") from an original script by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, "Away We Go" is graced with an endearing central couple, apprehensive about their impending parenthood. Unfortunately, most of the other people in the film add to that anxiety by being smugly self-involved and a trial to endure.
Counterculture types Burt ("The Office's" John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph of "Saturday Night Live") are a longtime unmarried couple who are charmed to be in each other's company even if mundane things like replacing broken windows in their Colorado home with glass instead of cardboard seem to be beyond them.
But with a child on the way, Burt and Verona worry that they haven't figured out how to care for themselves, believing that at age 34 they are screw-ups (the R-rated film uses a much more graphic term). So when they end up taking a rambling trip across the country to visit old friends and family, it's not just to decide where to live, it's also to help figure out how to live.
There's nothing wrong with this as a concept, but the way it plays out is problematic. Accompanied by a melodic score by singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch, Burt and Verona are so immediately appealing and good-hearted, so obviously right for each other, that the whole notion that they worry about being feckless losers comes off as the rank contrivance it very much is.
An even bigger difficulty is that "Away We Go" in effect builds Burt and Verona's confidence by exposing them to a series of other couples who are mostly such grotesques and gargoyles that our heroes seem sane and responsible by comparison.
That's nice for them, but it forces us to endure the shenanigans of people best left unobserved.
The whole reason Burt and Verona go on this trip in the first place are because of the antics of Burt's parents, Jerry and Gloria.
As played by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara, these two are so heroically self-absorbed that they not only decide to leave the country just as their grandchild is about to be born, they rent out their house to strangers even though impoverished Burt and Verona are desperate to live there.
One of the first people visited is Lily (Allison Janney), an old co-worker of Verona's who now lives in Phoenix and turns out to be a loud and overbearing lush who never misses an opportunity to be as obnoxious as possible.
Moving to a different city (Madison, Wis.) and a different socioeconomic group, Burt and Verona meet up with Burt's childhood friend Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a university faculty member who now refers to herself as LN.
Along with her partner Roderick (Josh Hamilton), LN is yet another paragon of pathetic idiocy with a collection of childbearing theories that are both bizarre and deeply held. Case in point is her belief in the efficacy of the three S's: no separation, no sugar, no strollers. You have no idea.
Clearly, Lily, LN and their ilk are to some extent supposed to be comic relief, but they do not play that way. These portraits are more contemptuous than comic, filled with enough meanness and mockery, deserved or not, to make laughter the furthest thing from your mind.
To be fair to "Away We Go," Burt and Verona do have some nicer visits with more appealing folks, but by then the damage has been done. The warmth and goodwill the film's protagonists generate on their own is never matched by anything else put on screen, and that does feel like a shame.
'Away We Go'
MPAA rating: R rating for language and some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour,
Playing: At the Arclight in Hollywood and the Landmark in West Los Angeles