Baby on board

Away We Go is a wry look at love and reproduction.

Away We Go is a wry look at love and reproduction

Parents-to-be Burt (John Krasinski, left) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) travel around the U.S. to find a perfect place to start their family in Sam Mendes' film Away We Go. ((Alliance Films) )

In the quietly cool romantic comedy Away We Go, Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) stroll the well-worn corridors of their relationship with a casual, arms-linked tenderness. Though they aren’t officially married, they might as well be. Having been together since college, they’re constantly engaged in the small, thoughtful gestures that build a romance, brick by brick: see Verona staple a trip itinerary to the inside of Burt’s coat; see him not mind.

With their compasses so firmly fixed on one another, introducing a pregnancy shouldn’t be disorienting — and yet it is. "Are we f----ups?" asks Verona, assessing their early 30s from inside their dilapidated home. "We have a cardboard window." Spurred forward by the impending baby, they trot along like a pair of Goldilockses on a road trip, trying Phoenix, Tucson, Florida and (an unusually Anglophone) Montreal to discover the just-right new home to go with their new family.

On the Phoenix stop, Allison Janney, cranked up to 11, plays a former colleague of Verona’s, the kind of cubicle mate who’s always clapping her hands and hooting. She’s a drunken, non-stop fount of bad parenting advice. After mocking her son’s ears while he grimly attacks his videogame a few feet away, she declares, "They can’t hear you, you know. It’s like white noise to them."

Much of the film consists of Burt and Verona side by side, reacting to the absurdity around them. It’s a hip, outsider position inherently tinged with superiority, as when the camera lingers cruelly on Janney’s overweight kid. The films of British director Sam Mendes have never flattered suburban America. With a little too much Old World satisfaction, he skewers the sheep-like middle class in American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, all the while bubble-wrapping his contempt in lush, painterly imagery. Accordingly, despite its slightness, Away We Go looks great. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras spreads the open road landscape with buttery light; the colours are sumptuous, tactile.

If the Janney character is a touch too nasty – albeit hilarious – she serves as a warning for all that our heroes don’t want to become. Dave Eggers has perfected that bemused distance in his writing, and in the elevated, slightly askew perspective of his McSweeney’s literary empire. Eggers wrote Away We Gowith his wife, Vendela Vida, whose road trip (to Lapland) novel Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name (2007) drifted along on a similar gust of bewilderment and sweetness. Eggers and Vida have young children themselves, and merrily mine the ridiculous terrain of modern parenting for laughs.

Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal, left) is an old friend who offers many opinions on child-rearing to Burt and Verona. ((Alliance Films))

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a women’s studies professor whose earth-mother demeanour is a bad mask for unbearable righteousness. (Christened Ellen, she goes by "LN," perhaps finding the letter E oppressive.) With her bedroom eyes, boneless body and drapey sleeves, Gyllenhaal as LN looks like she’s just peeled herself off a massage table. Over dinner with Burt and Verona, she waxes romantic about reproduction in the "seahorse community." The mere sight of a stroller makes this attachment mama furious: "I love my children — why would I want to push them away?" The scene is far, far over the top – especially with Josh Hamilton as LN’s ponytailed husband, lounging in the communal bed – and funny as hell. Perhaps those with young kids (I admit a bias here) who are up against the lunatic culture of over-parenting will laugh loudest, recognizing in this exaggeration a very real archetype.

But such generational satire is hard to sustain. The writing can’t quite keep pace with the ambitions of the set-up, and the scene trickles off gracelessly, as do most of the vignettes. (Each is separated from the next by the gratingly twee song stylings of Alexi Murdoch.)

Such hipster cuteness is mostly, thankfully, limited. More sympathetic characters appear, undoing the cartoonishness of the film’s first half. In Florida, Burt’s brother (Paul Schneider) is shell-shocked after his wife walks out on him and his daughter. In a Montreal nightclub, an old friend (Chris Messina) delivers a short, powerful monologue about watching his wife miscarry – again. In this sad, original scene, the film sheds its self-satisfaction for something bolder and genuine.

For Verona, the pregnancy unlocks memories of her parents’ deaths. Rudolph’s stern demeanour suggests a woman adept at keeping her emotional life in check. Krasinski is her warmer foil, and the two are believably familiar together. They also look sort of normal; not artfully normal, but normal, which feels radical somehow in an American love story.

The rush to feather the nest, to create a life for your child better than the one you’re in, is a primal facet of becoming a parent. One couple’s cross-country quest for a new community is a noble and original premise, but where they end up smacks of fairy tale. The coda is slightly phony, if inevitable; a bad swerve on the road trip in a film that enchants when it’s most truthful, and least smug.

Away We Go opens June 12.

Katrina Onstad is the film columnist for CBCNews.ca.