(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2009)
Theoretically, Sam Mendes’ Away We Go is the kind of project I like, seeming to be trying to diagnose life as we have to live it here and now. It’s about a couple in their early thirties, in love and expecting their first child, but afraid something fundamental has passed them by – how to be adults, with the roots and infrastructure and emotional contours that seems to mean. In the new online economy they can work from anywhere, so they set out on a trip to find a base, visiting friends and family members in Arizona and Wisconsin and Montreal and Miami, hoping somewhere might stick. It’s patriotically pleasing to note that Montreal will come out a clear winner in the eyes of most viewers, if not necessarily those of the protagonists.
Away We Go
Mind you, that’s partly because most of the people they meet elsewhere are somewhere between deranged and grotesque, whereas the couple in Montreal are merely sadder than they first appear. This extremely episodic film, co-written by the high-profile Dave Eggers, has some easy laughs, but it’s bewildering what we’re meant to take away from it. The day afterwards, I rewatched Preston Sturges’ 1942 comedy The Palm Beach Story, a remarkably sustained wife-on-the-run creation, populated with one of the all-time great assemblies of severe eccentrics. Sturges’ film remains a milestone, partly because it seems like a coherent (if super-heightened) angle on aggression and sexuality. As usual, I know it’s hardly fair to judge new releases by hall-of-fame standards (although then again Mendes is, let’s recall, an acclaimed Oscar-winning director), but the comparison helps coalesce how Away We Go never amounts to much more than a freak show. The ultimate proof comes with the ending, which seems arbitrary at best, and won’t strike most viewers as being particularly plausible, or relevant, or meaningful.
Maya Rudolph, best known for her broad sketch-work on Saturday Night Live, is more interesting in the female lead than I expected, but John Krasinski as her partner sticks to a single wide-eyed note. The other actors lay down a few crumbs at best. I wrote earlier this year that Mendes’ last film, Revolutionary Road, seemed removed and academic and, in terms of evoking its 1950’s setting, oddly empty. Much the same applies here; Mendes just doesn’t seem like much of a cinematic thinker, when you come right down to it. There’s no reason to see this film - find something vaguely adult to do instead.
Which raises the question, does Pete Docter’s Up, the latest Pixar wonder, qualify as such a worthwhile adult pursuit? The critics are lining up, as they did with Wall-E last year, to stamp it as one of the year’s best. I do think, with some regret, that digital animation is now almost the surest source of the sort of out of the box daring that used to belong to the major auteurs. You marvel throughout at its immense self-confidence, and the availability of its resources.
As you likely know, it’s built around an old widower, missing his wife and regretting they never achieved their great dream of moving to the epic Paradise Falls in South America; when he’s faced with being shunted into a rest home, he uses his knowledge of (and obviously access to!) balloons to lift his house from its foundations and soar away from it all. Along with a stowaway (and presumably the cooperation of an inattentive US air force, and a week off for the laws of physics) he makes it down south in no time, to an adventure involving a long-lost explorer, a rare giant bird, and a large pack of talking dogs. This last element generates many of the best laughs, while underlining the film’s rather audacious navigating between high and low concepts.
It’s great to watch, and I’d rather this be the year’s official best film than say Slumdog Millionaire (the success of which rather depressed me), but I wouldn’t be able to maintain my enthusiasm for the artform if I really believed it was that. I admire Up in the same way that I admire the iphone – it’s a triumph of human creativity, but surely more technological than aesthetic…or rather, in both cases, the technological achievement becomes polished to an extent that art as we traditionally think of it starts to look trivial. But in my own dire view of things, this is one of the more benign aspects of the overall degradation that’s made us into the debt-ridden, unsustainable, complacent collective monstrosity we are; the more we advance on some fronts, the less aware we are of what’s eroding on others.
Up is a nice take on how it’s never too late to change and all that kind of thing, but for all its sophistication, it remains a kids’ film, in that kids needn’t take on any responsibility for grappling with the world’s real issues. Adults ought to though.
Another depressing thing about last year’s Oscars, to some, was the surprise foreign film victory of Japan’s Departures, beating The Class and Waltz with Bashir. At the time, hardly anyone outside the tiny pool of Oscar voters had seen, or barely even registered, the movie, but now it’s been released, and generally slammed as mediocre. It’s not an unfair judgment, since the film’s instincts and approaches are utterly conventional. It’s the story of a cellist who loses his Tokyo orchestra gig and retreats back to his childhood town, where he takes a job preparing the dead for burial. In its classic form, this is a highly ritualistic, and again aesthetic pursuit, seeking to capture the person’s inner truth and beauty while rendering them immaculate.
The story is a mere dawdle, shamelessly embracing various clichés and soft choices. But I have to tell you, I was in tears for a good half hour of it. A huge chunk of the film simply involves the protagonist and his aging master practicing their art, as the bereaved family looks on, and it’s classic identification mechanics – as they become wrapped up in the ceremony and get weepy, so do you. And compared to the somewhat meaningless high-concepts I mentioned, there’s something refreshing about the film’s clarity and focus: the devotion to the dead in their final passage isn’t primarily a matter of mysticism or superstition, but a sharpening of the obligations of being left behind. The character is portrayed initially as such a goofball that his inner evolution doesn’t carry the weight it should, but through sheer doggedness maybe, the movie hits its targets. I wish it were better, but it’s still the most mature and meaningful thing I have for you this week.