John Krasinski’s character Burt Farlander is afflicted with something I’ve decided to call the indie stupor.
We’ve all seen this before, in films as varied as Garden State, American Beauty, Broken Flowers, andElizabethtown. Our hero is a sheepish and sometimes benumbed observer of the wacky world around him. The wackier the supporting characters, the more our wounded hero looks blankly at the camera, as if to say, “Everyone is crazy except for me. In contrast, I am a deeply sensitive and intuitive human being.”
But it begs the question: Why would I care about such a passive hero? I prefer someone who is actively engaged in the world around him, not just standing around in an “I’m With Stupid” shirt.
Burt is supposed to be a stand-in for novelist and indie lit hero Dave Eggers, who cowrote the screenplay—about a rudderless 30something couple about to have their first child—with his wife, Vendela Vida. We know Eggers to be a highly intelligent, possibly even brilliant man. So why make his cinematic double such a drip? (Burt’s ludicrously unattractive beard and haircut combo was my first clue that he was a series of cutesy affectations, not a real character.)
Of course, the indie stupor only works if our hero has lots of crass humanity to rub up against, and, brother, does Burt have some doosies to choose from.
As he and his girlfriend Verona (Maya Rudolph) travel the continent, looking for clues about parenting and personal fulfillment, they spend time with the vulgar Lily (Allison Janney) who cheerfully mocks and sexualizes her tween children; the pretentious New Age queen LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who refuses to put her children in strollers because “why would I want to constantly push my children away from me?”; and Burt’s selfish parents (Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels), who brightly announce that they are moving to Belgium months before the birth of their first grandchild.
There is a scene in the movie where Burt comes to life: He takes action at the home of LN and her guru-like husband (Josh Hamilton), ridiculing them and causing a bit of a ruckus. But his behavior seems so wildly out of character, it was almost jarring.
Much of Away We Go rubbed me the wrong way—from its indie-ready soundtrack of dreamy/quirky folk tunes to its awkward vacillations between pathos and broad comedy. And while I appreciate the fact that director Sam Mendes found a more earthy visual style for this film (his films tend to be a bit pristine), I’m beginning to see a pattern of knee-jerk misanthropy with him. (Besides American Beauty, he also directed last year’s art house bummer,Revolutionary Road.)
One shining note? Maya Rudolph shows real promise as Verona. Unlike Burt, Verona has an inner life—she hasn’t fully processed the death of her parents several years ago—and she seems slightly annoyed by her boyfriend’s man-child antics. That makes two of us, honey.