For whatever else critics and readers made of it, Dave Eggers’ soaring memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a beautiful monument to its own creation. The story’s specificity and timeliness rooted it firmly within a certain generation — Eggers was 30 years old when the book hit shelves in 2000 — even as the humor and pathos made the narrative resonant on a broader level. Eggers, whose credits also run to short stories and novels, has now branched out into screenwriting, co-writing Spike Jonze’s forthcoming Where the Wild Things Are with the director and penning Away We Go with wife Vendela Vida for director Sam Mendes. The Jonze film makes sense even on a theoretical level: Eggers, who lost his parents to cancer, knows what it is to inhabit a dark and strange childhood. But Away We Go is a genuine treasure for being an original story that wonderfully, grandly, joyously weaves together the disparate strands of what could be called Eggers’ worldview into a warm and moving tapestry. Mendes’ skillful direction and grace at handling a story of modern families is a perfect match for Eggers and Vida’s wondering and wandering journey through America to find a place to call home. To say the film is staggering genius would be overselling it, but it’s a heartbreaking work in the best of ways.
Bert (John Krasinksi) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) have been together for several years when she gets pregnant. They live the kind of life that’s both romanticized and lamented by those who actually live it: ramshackle home stuffed with well-loved junk, random jobs that pay the bills but leave them yearning for more, and a feeling of vague confusion when examining the world around them. They’re both well-educated, and some would find it easy to conflate their intelligence with entitlement, and to assume that their pursuit of happiness equates with some generational narcissism. But Mendes’ film and Eggers and Vida’s script is anything but pretentious, and the depth and clarity given to Bert and Verona is part of what makes the film so good. The leads are 33 or 34 years old, about to have a baby, and completely unsure of where they’re going with their lives, and Eggers’ point is not just that this is okay but almost inevitable. The members of Generation X and Y have, for better or worse, elongated young adulthood until it becomes a contentious no man’s land in which it’s easy to get lost. Eggers’ whole m.o. is pretty much dealing with this problem, and what it means to deal with love and life on your own time when you’re surrounded by people telling you how they think you should do it. Bert and Verona are established in moments as loving, caring, soulful people who have built themselves a life, and the film would be a worthwhile accomplishment if it were nothing more than a small-scale character study.
But Mendes has a lot more in store. After Bert’s parents, played by Jeff Daniels and Katherine O’Hara, announce that they’re moving to Belgium, Bert and Verona realize they’ve only been grinding out their existence in the Northeast to be close to the older couple and that they’re now free to live wherever they want. Verona is six months along when she and Bert hit the road to visit a series of friends and family across the country and hopefully find a place to put down roots, and their itinerary acts as the film’s backbone. They criss-cross the continent, heading to the Southwest before bouncing back up to Wisconsin and into Canada, but obviously the point of their trip is to take them a step at a time toward the emotional place in their relationship where they’ll be able to make a home. The skill of the screenplay and direction is that the internal and external journeys are so perfectly in sync that Bert and Verona wind up at the perfect spot for both.
All of which sounds pretty heavy, I know, but this is Eggers, and he and Vida have written a damn funny movie. The screenplay is full of quirky characters delivering spot-on dialogue, from the blowhards in Phoenix (including Allison Janney, who is unparalleled in her commitment to creating a gonzo persona) to Bert’s vaguely dippy parents to the couple Bert and Verona stay with in Madison, played to the insane, New Agey hilt by Josh Hamilton and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Every scene is packed with dry, quick-witted, observational wit, but the humor is also able to pivot into drama without missing a beat. There’s a moment later in the film when Bert and Verona are out drinking with their Montreal friends and the banter gives way to discussion, which in turn becomes genuine communication, as the two men and two women try to define the essence of love and the necessity of being better than you ever thought you could be.
The entire cast is superb. Mendes has assembled a fantastic, tight ensemble, and though every role outside of Bert and Verona’s is a supporting one, those slots are filled with gifted comedians or convincing character actors that give the film its lift and gravity at once. Paul Schneider, as Bert’s brother, barely appears and only late in the film, but it’s still solid work from a dependable performer. However, Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey, as the couple living in Canada whose lives and heartbreak mirror what might be in store for Bert and Verona, are absolutely wonderful, and Messina’s monologue on love and loss is gut-wrenching. Krasinski and Rudolph are also at the top of their game, and they make Bert and Verona believable as dramatic characters as well as empathetic and humorous ones. This is Krasinski’s best performance yet, and he’s amazing at capturing the giddy excitement of an expectant father as well as the worry and fear that he won’t be able to protect his baby girl from a world he doesn’t know how to fix. Rudolph is equally impressive. She’s strong, smart, funny, and creates the ideal onscreen match for Krasinski. They click with the ease of two people who have centered their lives on taking care of each other.
Because that’s what Away We Go is about, and what it manages to so sublimely stumble upon in a pitch-perfect ending that can’t help but call to mind the lofty wordless emotion of the closing pages of Eggers’ book from a decade earlier. These are young people figuring out how to take care of each other, wondering what it means to be adult, and trying to discover the place they’ve been looking their whole lives to find. It makes sense that so much of that search, though filled with surreal adventures and unique characters, is set to to the strains of singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch. Mendes’ ability to blend music and image to summon unnameable emotions is, on a certain level, admittedly a bit of a cheat: Eggers’ contemporary, Chuck Klosterman, got to the heart of the matter when he wrote that “if you play Explosions in the Sky loud enough, the process of hanging drywall can be a life-altering experience.” But the scenes and sequences that rely on Murdoch’s music never feel gimmicky or clichéd, and certainly not as if the filmmakers ran out of ideas and decided to throw a song on top of things in hopes it would carry the moment home. No, the songs and sights together do more than even the most elegant words could to communicate the love and longing Bert and Verona feel for each other and the family they’re about to create. Because sometimes, there just aren’t words.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.