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Review: 'SNL's' Maya Rudolph shines in 'Away We Go'

  • Story Highlights
  • John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph star as a couple expecting a baby
  • Their onscreen relationship feels touchingly true
  • Director Sam Mendes brings out a great performance from Rudolph
  • Movie's loose-limbed, spontaneous quality is a good part of its appeal
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Maybe marriage to Kate Winslet isn't all that bad.

Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski star as a couple on the road in the comedy "Away We Go."

Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski star as a couple on the road in the comedy "Away We Go."

After cruelly dissecting marital malaise in "American Beauty" and again, just six months ago, in "Revolutionary Road," Winslet's husband Sam Mendes takes a slightly more optimistic view of family life in the edgy comedy "Away We Go."

Not that he's offering a whole-hearted endorsement of the institution.

Burt and Verona (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) aren't legally bound -- she staunchly resists his repeated proposals -- but nevertheless they're a couple about to go nuclear: She's six months pregnant.

He sells insurance to insurance companies. She's an illustrator with a lucrative line in anatomical drawings.

Nevertheless, they're struggling to make ends meet.

"Are we losers?" wonders Verona (only she uses a more colorful expression). "We have cardboard windows... I think we must be."

Insomuch as they have a plan at all, it hinges on the support they're expecting from Burt's doting parents. So it's a nasty wake-up call when Jerry and Gloria (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) announce they're taking off for a new life in Belgium -- yes, even before the baby's out.

There is a silver lining: Realizing they no longer have any reason to stay, Burt and Verona decide to widen their horizons. They could move to Arizona where Verona's sister lives. Burt has a job prospect in Madison, Wisconsin. Or they have college friends in Montreal. Their destiny awaits them, all they have to do is go out and find it. And away they go.

Although the couple racks up a good few miles in their search for home, the movie doesn't betray much interest in location. Arizona is hot and arid. In Montreal they pour gravy on French fries. Don't expect cultural insights. It's never explained how these stragglers can afford such speculative wandering, and when they do find their dream home it's mystifying that it hasn't occurred to them before.

Still, the movie's loose-limbed, spontaneous quality is a good part of its appeal, and a refreshing change of pace from other movies by Mendes, whose artfully designed compositions often seem self-conscious and painfully detached.

In keeping with Indie-wood's vogue for shuffling snide satire and sentimentality (see "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine"), "Away We Go" presents its trepidatious travelers with half a dozen starkly contrasted parental figures, including Allison Janney's monstrously vulgar alcoholic, Maggie Gyllenhaal's radical earth-mother (who has shortened her name to "LN"), and Paul Schneider as Burt's rawly dumped brother, who wonders aloud if it would be wrong to tell his daughter her mom has been murdered.

There's a level of bile here that some audiences may find alienating -- I can't see it being a big hit in Phoenix -- but Dave Eggers' and Vendela Vida's writing is a cut above the average, and it's performed with gusto.

They may not be the most dynamic duo to hit the road, but the relationship between Burt and Verona feels touchingly true.

Burt is a boy still trying on manhood for size (with a beard for extra emphasis), and though we've seen Krasinski do this before, he seems to have fine-tuned the performance to the point where he could very happily play it for the next two decades. Unlike his character, he's an actor who has found himself.

Maya Rudolph is the joy of this picture. Give or take her role in Altman's "Prairie Home Companion," the "Saturday Night Live" star hasn't made much impact in movies before now. With her frazzled, freckled face, she's not the glamour girl who would normally be shoe-horned into the romantic lead, but she seizes her chance and runs with it.

Mendes brings out a more thoughtful and nuanced presence than the brittle comedienne, and Rudolph makes you consider how rarely we see a real woman at the center of things. Even her occasional tentativeness works for the part. Verona is so fresh and alert, she can't help but doubt herself as they trail from one family disaster to the next and wonder what kind of parents they are going to make.

It's an uneven picture about the bumps in the road, and not immune to the odd dramatic shortcut or jocular cheap shot. But it does catch an anxiety that will be acutely familiar to anyone contemplating imminent parenthood, and -- in a beautifully judged cameo by Melanie Lynskey -- the deep anguish of someone who has had that prospect snatched away.

More often than not, and where it really counts, "Away We Go" hits home.

"Away We Go" is rated R and runs 98 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's review, click here.

All About Sam MendesMaggie GyllenhaalSaturday Night LiveMaya Rudolph

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