By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Burt and Verona are expecting a little bundle of joy and don't know what to do with it. A lot of impending parents share that question. Few go to such quirky lengths for an answer as this unwed, boho-cute couple do in Away We Go.
They're not entirely prepared for such responsibility. Burt, played hang-dog scruffy by John Krasinski (NBC's The Office) sells insurance to insuring companies — whatever that means — over the telephone in a bogus baritone voice because clients trust the sound. Verona (luminous Maya Rudolph) illustrates medical journals, treating a sketch of a subdural hematoma like Matisse at the easel.
Not exactly the stability needed to raise a child these days.
But money isn't their chief concern. Burt and Verona don't have any foundation to recognize what parenting is about, or advisers to trust. His parents are self-absorbed hippies, hers are dead, and it's a tossup as to which is the better situation. So they load up their car for a cross-country quest to find the perfect place to raise their gestating daughter.
As with most road trips in movies, Burt and Verona first need to find themselves.
From Tucson to Montreal to Miami, they visit friends and relatives who haven't cracked the parenthood code and went a little crazy trying. It's Burt and Verona's trial based on everyone else's errors.
Away We Go isn't a typical summer movie, which is why it'll likely die a quick death in theaters. Written by Dave Eggers — who penned the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — and his wife, Vendela Vida, this is a movie steeped in emotional feeling, not visceral sensation. Listening is more crucial to an audience than seeing. Rather than explosions, there are tiny land mines of comical truth.
Director Sam Mendes drops the "important filmmaker" cloak foisted upon him since American Beauty, not worn well since Road to Perdition and Jarhead. Mendes plays it looser here, to a fault at numerous times. Away We Go suffers from a herky-jerky narrative and vague intentions; unless you somehow relate to Burt and Verona, it's easy to dismiss them as pathetic, condescending people.
Yet there's a cumulative grace to Away We Go, making its problems seem almost necessary. Why should a movie about social muck-ups (Burt and Verona use a harsher, rhyming term about themselves) operate smoothly? They encounter parents even less capable of being role models after years of experience; harpies and cuckolds, deserters and hangers-on, each maddeningly unaware of the harm they're doing to their kids.
Away We Go doesn't make these dysfunctions laugh-out-loud funny. That would be cheap comedy. Instead, Mendes and the writers go for wry smiles and chuckles of recognition. It's possible that this movie is simply too smart for summertime. But it has a breakthrough performance by Rudolph, dialogue primed to be repeated in real life, and a hesitant optimism sneaking up on Burt and Verona.
With parents the way they may turn out, the kid might be all right.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.