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Away We Go (15)

Sam Mendes and a hip literary couple deliver a shockingly smug movie

Plenty has been written about the population explosion, but there is another kind of proliferation associated with the birth rate. Newspaper columnists, sitcom writers and sensitive novelists have between them ensured that our culture is not wanting for self-deprecating accounts of parenthood, actual or imminent.

Into this overcrowded world, Away We Go is born. Some will offer congratulations to the proud parents, the literary couple Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. Their screenplay has been delivered to the screen by that noted midwife, Sam Mendes (whose last film, Revolutionary Road, was a messy forceps birth). Others will wonder if the duo couldn't have considered the greater good and exercised some restraint prior to the point of conception.

Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski), both in their thirties, lead a cosy, ramshackle existence in Colorado. She illustrates medical textbooks, he sells insurance. But they wonder if they shouldn't have put down roots by now. Or, as they ask one another: "Are we fuck-ups?"

This anxiety is heightened by Verona's pregnancy and the realisation that they don't have anywhere that feels like home. What better way to explore this dilemma than to stop in on various wacky friends across the US and Canada while scouting for somewhere to raise their daughter?

There have been road movies with more tenuous starting points, but not many. People say it isn't the arriving that makes a trip worthwhile, and that must be doubly true of any film where the climactic realisation is that “All we can do is be good for this one baby. We don't have control over much else." But in Away We Go, the getting there isn't much fun, either. The film's mechanical premise might have been undercut if the chums whom Verona and Burt encountered on their road trip neglected to offer straightforward tutorials or threw Burt's idealistic hopes of giving his daughter an "epic, Huck Finn-y" childhood into turmoil. Fat chance. What we get is an inventory of sentimentality and spite in which every character is either a beacon of parental perfection or a pressing case for social services.

In the latter category is Lily, a banshee who belittles her husband, loudly belittles her introverted children, and makes Beverly
from Abigail's Party resemble Joan Bakewell. When Lily expresses puzzlement that her golf club application has been rejected - shortly after we've heard her screeching about the effect on her breasts of child-rearing - the film-makers are inviting us to collude in their snobbery, to take the side of the elite against her.

The sin is compounded by casting Allison Janney as Lily, bringing new meaning to the concept of waste. I'm no West Wing enthusiast but, next to this, CJ was Hedda Gabler.

There's worse to come when Verona and Burt visit LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is not so much a character as a list of traits despised by the screenwriters. She is still breastfeeding her four-year-old, rejects pushchairs in favour of holding her children close, and practises a "continuum" household where the children share their parents' bed. The whole encounter is staged as the movie's big comic set piece, but it's a hateful scene that ends with Burt coaxing LN's son into a dreaded pushchair - in effect overruling her concept of parenting - and asking her partner: "What is it exactly that you do?"

As Burt and Verona scamper off down the road, hooting over their tirade against LN, you realise you're watching a celebration of
a pair of smug squares. No matter how much the scales are tipped against the likes of LN and Lily, you have to wonder at the wisdom of a screenplay that incorporates so much warts-and-all eccentricity, then places a boringly blemishless couple at its centre.

It's not merely that the film is banal. Banal alone would be excusable. But it's also hostile. In the paranoid world dreamed up by Eggers and Vida, bad people get children they don't deserve while good people suffer unforeseeable trauma. Anyone who thinks
that a script this lacklustre could not be made any worse has underestimated Sam Mendes, who takes Away We Go to a new plane of awfulness by imposing on it a soundtrack of winsome acoustic numbers by Alexi Murdoch.

As Verona and Burt cuddle at the roadside, exchanging sweet nothings over another of Murdoch's jangly compositions, it's impossible to escape the feeling that you're being sold 300 free minutes of airtime on your mobile network.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken