Away We Go

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?


17 responses to “Away We Go

  1. Pingback: Away We Go | Movie Cinema Vip

  2. Eggers has never been a brilliant writer so much as a brilliant editor and publisher. Whereas I personally find it fascinating that Mendes, who came straight from the British theatre to do American Beauty, keeps churning out these ‘American wasteland of conformity’ films. Note that that doesn’t mean I find the films themselves fascinating.

  3. Brett, been reading for a while now, but this is my first time to comment. Been loving the blog, but this one really struck me, because I feel like Mendes has sort of become our generations snake oil salesman. American Beauty and Road To Perdition were both decent films, when they came out, but I feel like they fall apart on subsequent viewings. I felt like Jarhead’s “war is boring, come feel the boredom and desperation with us” was not a revelation, but was just boring and desperate. Revolutionary Road, although full of amazing performances, felt like a retread of films that we’ve been seeing for almost forty years now (Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf?, The Graduate, or to a severe extreme Blue Velvet).

    I have to admit that I fell in love with the trailer for Away We Go, and I do look forward to it, but not as much as I should. And why? Because its got the “directed by Sam Mendes” tag on it, and, to me, that tag signifies beating a dead horse. I want to be REALLY excited for this film, but, I just can’t be.

  4. I give him props for Revolutionary Road because it is the best film adaptation of a book I’ve ever seen. I bought the book after seeing the film, but I find it boring because its exactly like watching the film in slow motion (since I can’t read and formulate appropriate imagery as quickly as I can watch it).

  5. I find Eggars wanting as a writer and promoter (which, after all, is what he is – he’s not an editor so much as an enthusiastic supporter of his self-defined brand of cool), given how narrow his focus is. He’s someone who mistakes his personal experience for universal truth. He gets away with this due to the demographic that supports him; they’re by and large people who he’d recognize in the crowd at the bar or the rock club. I don’t question his intentions, and am in fact convinced they are good. I just don’t believe he’s got a very large or expansive vision of this world.

  6. Brilliantly stated, Brett. It’s like you crawled inside my head and stole my thoughts as I was thinking them, which, when you think about it, is both HIGHLY creepy, and an insidious form of plagiarism, to which I say: Dude, I’ll totally sue you so you’d betta watch it.

  7. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never seen either of their other films; but I loved Away We Go. I laughed. I cried. I was shocked and had tender moments. As a movie, existing by itself and not as part of a lexicon of of work, it worked well for me.

  8. Oh, I forgot about Jarhead. That’s probably Mendes’ best film (warning! controversial statement!).

  9. he’s not an editor so much as an enthusiastic supporter of his self-defined brand of cool

    Like I said, I’m not a big fan of Egger’s writing, and I’ll admit that the McSweeney’s website is far too hermetically obsessed with self-replicating self-referential irony, but the quarterly journal, the Believer magazine (which his wife edits), the multiple books and collections, and to a lesser extent the quarterly Wholphin are all top-notch products that exemplify not only a love of art, language, and culture, but also a care for the physical object that a book is, something that is often overlooked by even the best publishers (Penguin being excepted, of course). The more recent issues of the quarterly journal have begun to be a little insular with regard to the writers chosen, but it’s still a fantastic venue for newer voices and experimental fiction, as well as tastemakers. I really don’t think you should downplay Eggers’ ability as an editor and publisher.

  10. I didn’t feel this was any of the following: a road film, a hipster film, nor as you say:

    “my American life is so damn tough” complaint seems all the more extraneous

    I don’t see where your quote comes from as I saw the film as simply analyzing the various ways in which people raise children.

    The travel has very little to do with the story other than to get characters from point A to point B in the plot and the closest the film comes to being hipster is the soundtrack, which at times does come on a little strong.

    I went in with my “Juno” hating hat on, but I was willing to take it off when the film proved to have merit.

  11. I don’t see much value in Eggers’ incessant self-promotion due to the fact that it reinforces his narrow vision of the world; it has nothing to do with his literary merit (or lack thereof), or his love of language. It has everything to do with his creation of a hegemonic movement that only promotes “experimental” fiction of a certain type.

  12. Tim,

    I don’t think your statement was that controversial. Stating that Jarhead was a piece of trash or desperately lacking or was Mendes’ worst film (none of which I can say, since I haven’t seen it) would seem to be more anti-“film-critic-establishment” and therefore more controversial than stating it was his best film. (If I remember correctly, the mainstream reviews classified it as hit-or-miss, with the usual “oohs” and “ahs” from the appropriate people to quote on the movie posters and ads….)

  13. Michael, I guess I just don’t see why publishing a literary journal with a tangible editorial house style is necessarily self-promotion. Do you consider the same to be true of The New Yorker or Glimmertrain or The Paris Review? They each have what you could classify as ‘hegemonic’ style that only promotes writing of a certain type. Any literary body with a finite number of readers and editors will have discernible consistency in taste. If what you’re criticizing is indeed a problem, it would seem that the only solution is to publish whatever crosses a given editor’s desk.

  14. Tim,

    The problem is not the publishing house. The problem is the continued expansion and branding of things like his “pirate store”.

    Also, I do have a problem with The New Yorker, but I suspect that our values are so different that you wouldn’t understand my issue even if I explained it to you.

  15. The pirate store is the front for a nonprofit organization that teaches creative writing to children ages 6 – 18. All proceeds from the store go directly to the writing center, and help provide funds for things like publishing collections of writing by the students, which I think is pretty cool.

    I would like to hear your opinion on The New Yorker, and I will try my best to understand.

  16. The New Yorker continues the glorification of an unwieldy and unsustainable dinosaur of a city. It promotes the perception of superiority on the part of New Yorkers and it attempts to give greater weight than is deserved to New York’s contributions to culture.

    It’s 2009, Wall Street has been exposed as Charlatan’s Row, the city itself is a tremendous drain on the resources of the rest of the country, and the readers of The New Yorker continue to live in a dreamworld that has ended.

  17. That’s a pretty interesting take, I think. I’m certainly not the world’s greatest New Yorker fan, but from what I can tell it has very little to do with the city (other than the occasional cover or two)- except of course for the Arts & Culture section, which is no different from similar sections in local newspapers and magazines across the country.The fiction section, which I was mostly referring to (I could probably have been more clear on this point), certainly isn’t NYC-centric.

    As to your more general points about the decline of New York, I’m afraid I have no opinion. I certainly know several New Yorkers and ex-New Yorkers who would vigorously disagree with you, but I’m in no position to speak for them.

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