Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are the ideal, bright, loving twosome. He has the playfulness of a Muppet; she is quieter, more solid, earth-rooted like a blossoming fruit tree. A couple since college, and now 33, they haven't run out of things to whisper to each other, secrets and aspirations to share. Their conversations are intimate, caring, leavened with sprung rhythms of cuddly wit. And now that Verona is six months pregnant with their first child, they've started to worry about their, and its, place in the world. (See TIME's Summer Arts Preview)
So what makes Burt and Verona as annoying as the smug yupsters in those New York Times commercials? It could be the movie they're in, a bloated, criminally judgmental borderline-comedy about Burt and Verona and the friends they are loftily superior to. Virtually every supporting character in Away We Go is either a repellent caricature deserving contempt or a crippled thing cadging for our sympathy. To director Sam Mendes, they're nothing but point-provers, put on display to show the deviant behavior our two winsome leads, or any sentient member of the audience, would instantly reject. (Watch TIME's Video: 10 Questions for John Krasinski)
Burt's parents, for instance: Jerry (Jeff Daniels) and Gloria (Catherine O'Hara). Burt and Verona have moved to be near them in the child's first years, but now they're moving abroad and renting their house to strangers, leaving the kids to find some other place to live. That sets Burt and Verona on a trip across the country, and into Canada, visiting cities where old friends might cue them to settle down. Some friends: shrills and quacks. Some country: this is an American road movie that hates most Americans. No surprise when you consider than, in American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, Mendes fashioned sweeping diatribes against the suburban middle-class, as if commuting to work and living near people you haven't known since college were crimes against humanity.
In Phoenix, they spend time with Lily (Allison Janney), Verona's former boss, and her husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan). Paging the ugly Americans! Looped by noon, Lily brays in a glass-shattering voice about her kids, who are within their easy earshot, and wonders why she hasn't been accepted at the local country club. As for Lowell, he's been crushed by her tart hectoring into a mewling collection of prejudices. So Burt and Verona move on. After all, if Phoenix harbors two hateful people, the whole city must be tainted.
And away we go to Madison, Wisc., where (in this otherwise oddly apolitical film) students can briefly be seen carrying banners that denounce the CIA. We're here for a How Not To course in New Age wooziness, mentored by L N (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a professor with tons of family money, and her sponging beau Rod (Josh Hamilton). At least the satire directed at this couple a two-spouted fountain of cockeyed parenting theories occasionally hits the mark. When Rod explains the mating of sea horses, L N purrs, "If I could, I would lay my eggs in your brood-pouch." Rod thinks he was an abused child because his mother gave birth to him in a hospital, adding incredulously, "And she wonders why I can't walk into a dry cleaner's without vomiting!" L N and Rod get the righteous tell-off scene that signals the film's passive-aggressive hostility to most of its characters.
This includes the nice ones, wounded sparrows like the Garnetts, Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey). Munch can't have kids, so they adopted; this is presented as the ultimate curse. Burt's brother Courtney (Paul Schneider) dearly loves his young daughter, but thinks she will be forever stigmatized because his wife has walked out. Apparently only traditional nuclear families can be happy. Indeed, the one successful brood is the one at the movie's center; they are all the things their friends aren't, and as sensitive as the acoustic guitar sound track mandatory in U.S. indie films.
The most perplexing thing about this low-key but abrasive concoction is that it was scripted by two estimable writers: Dave Eggers, nonfiction author (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), novelist (You Shall Know Our Velocity), magazine editor (McSweeney's) and a Time 100 laureate; and Vendela Vida, nonfiction author (Girls on the Verge), novelist (And Now You Can Go) and magazine editor (The Believer). Their published work usually softens and complicates any sweeping judgment about people by honoring their eccentricities. Why, then, are they so dismissive of Lily and Lowell, L N and Rod, and so adoring of Burt and Verona? Why create these folks if you don't want to live inside them for a while?
Even if you don't follows the work of Eggers and Vida, who are married with children, you can infer that the movie is their vision, however myopic. And if you do know them personally and you live in Phoenix or Madison you'll probably want to ask them, Hey, was that awful person supposed to be me?