I like Dave Eggers, and I really liked A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But there were times in reading that book when I was like, “okay, I get it: your family is screwed up, life if a torrent of never-ending hassles and wonders and beauties and tragedies. Point established. Welcome to the world.”
Similarly, although I love the films of Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road), I occasionally want to take him by the shoulders and say, “Sam, we all know that marriage is hard and suburbia is a wasteland and America is a cesspool of depravity beneath white picket fence veneers. Duh! Now stop banging me over the head with it and just give me more of those plastic bag moments of truth!”
In their first collaboration, Away We Go, Eggers (writer) and Mendes (director) indulge the worst parts of their middle class, quirky, wannabe subversive creative instincts. It’s a movie that ends up being mildly entertaining and at times quite moving, but on the whole a pretty contrived bit of “been there done that” generational angst.
We’ve all seen Garden State; we’ve all seen Little Miss Sunshine. By now the formula for these sorts of artsy, American, “we’re young and we don’t know who we are or where home is!” films is pretty well established. Away We Go adds and subtracts to the formula only in the smallest of ways (i.e. rather than a multitude of obscure indie rockers on the soundtrack, there is only one: Scottish singer/songwriter Alexi Murdoch). For the most part, the film is a mélange of hipster movie conventions and retread emotional epiphanies, which would be fine and dandy if not for the nauseating self-importance oozing out of every pore of this film. It’s a fairly good film made extremely annoying because it thinks it is saying something more important than it is.
As a film about quirky encounters with strange bit characters played by great actors (like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Catherine O’Hara, Allison Janney, Chris Messina), Away We Go is funny and interesting. But as a film about a thirtysomething couple struggling to figure out their place in the world and ultimately forced to “define home on their own terms,” Away We Go is boring and overwrought.
Maybe I’ve sold out to the man, or maybe I’m just tired of traveling, but the whole “what is home? The road is my only truth” hipster movie genre doesn’t hold the traction it once did. Sure, there is truth in the representation of this sort of generational discontent and unsettled spirit. But there always has been. It’s nothing new.
And in a world where people our age are dying for speaking out against corruption and injustice (Iran), or just dying from starvation or disease (most of the developing world), this whole “my American life is so damn tough” complaint seems all the more extraneous.
At the end of the day, the question of whether a thirtysomething yuppie couple should raise their unborn child in Tucson, Montreal, or Miami is a remarkably trivial sort of question. Rest assured: there will be Starbucks, used bookstores and organic food grocers wherever they end up. They’ll still have their Macbooks and iPhones and moleskin notebooks. They might not have white picket fence happiness, but they’ll have a stable roof over their heads and a consistently stocked fridge, which is more than can be said for most people in the world.
Sam Mendes and Dave Eggers are poetic bards of middle class malaise and passive-aggressive domestic drama. That is for sure. Sometimes it can be brilliant and substantial, but sometimes (in the case of Away We Go) it can be a little bit grating and comically self-serious. The world is a hard place; living isn’t easy; family, love, and home are sometimes hard to come by. Everyone knows and experiences this daily. Is it too much to ask that we start making films that go a bit beyond these hackneyed and overplayed existential acknowledgements?