by Tom Barbash
I often wonder how it all worked out for the couples who end up together in the last scenes of movies. What happened for instance to Elaine Robinson and Benjamin Braddock after they escaped onto the bus at the end of “The Graduate?”
Supposedly the scene was to end with them smiling in triumph, but they kept the camera rolling a few minutes longer. In the actor’s exhausted faces they found their ending, which was essentially: They’re in love, but the world is a mess, so now what?
I was thinking of that ending after seeing Sam Mendes’ excellent “Away We Go,” which starts with a couple also in love, also unmoored from family, and uncertain about where they’ll end up or who they’ll be when they get there.
Months from the birth of their first child, Burt and Verona, played superbly by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, set out to visit a series of friends and family members with the hopes of finding a home. They’re a strong couple, looking for new parental models (Verona’s parents are dead and Burt’s are flying off to Belgium) and for answers before their lives get turned upside down.
The Graduate’s post-college party replete with career advice (“Plastics”) is replaced here with a series of visits with friends who readily dispense parenting advice (no strollers) or rationalize their poor parenting habits.
“Away We Go” is a comedy first and foremost, but it contains moments of real insight and heart. The friends they visit are contemporary archetypes: the overly lax parents, the zealously attached parents, and the rainbow family of adopted kids.
The scenes are uncomfortably funny, and I’m certain some of the digs will hit home for any parent who’s had a cocktail while watching their child or worn a Baby Bjorn past the weight limit (I’ve done both). Still the film is less interested in mining for realism than it is in creating what it feels like to bring life into the world with no clear instructions and no one around to show you the ropes. Burt and Verona never struck me as self-satisfied, they’re merely looking for an ideal place to live in and raise a child, and for the wisdom to do this well.
And so I’ve been perplexed by the slant reviewers have taken in criticizing the film and its protagonists.
Todd McCarthy of Variety, complains throughout his review of the writers’ smugness, adding that screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida created proxy characters for themselves but “stripped the characters of their own creative passion and intellectual distinction in the process, thus ripping out their essence.”
Roger Ebert in his more positive review says the film has been suffering from “lukewarm reviews accusing Verona and Burt of being smug, superior and condescending.” Then adds “These are not sins if you have something to be smug about and much reason to condescend.”
He then details the familial and professional successes of Eggers and Vida, who he says are as “implausibly ideal” as their characters.
I must admit to caring little about the outside careers or marriages of the screenwriters of movies I attend.
Taken on their own – as they will be by the vast majority of filmgoers – Burt and Verona are certain of each other’s devotion and little else. Far from smug, they seem more lost and frazzled, like people told to pack a light sweater who have walked into a freezing rain.
As their visits to Arizona, Wisconsin and Montreal sour, I didn’t sense Burt and Verona enjoying these disappointments, though they do grow closer. Indeed this movie’s final shot, at which they wind up alone and far from comfort, seemed only temporarily ideal.
Chekhov’s last line in the “The Lady With the Pet Dog” is more apt here: “And it seemed that, just a little more—and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.”
I want to know what happens next to Burt and Verona, as I do Benjamin and Elaine, to see what resources they summon in their imperfect and messy, but deeply felt lives.
Tom Barbash is the author of The Last Good Chance, and On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick & 9/11: A Story of Loss & Renewal. A former Stegner fellow, he currently teaches at California College of the Arts.