Involving no catatonic housewives, no mortally botched abortions, and no luminous pools of blood in the kitchen either, Sam Mendes' latest film presents a somewhat happier tale of domesticity than 1999's American Beauty or last year's Revolutionary Road, if "tale of domesticity" is a fair description for a road movie in which the stated goal is a home.
In Away We Go from a screenplay by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida 30-something couple Verona (Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski) find themselves unexpectedly ditched during Verona's second trimester by the only set of theoretically adoring grandparents available, Burt's flakily self-absorbed parents (Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels). Thus unsettled, the two set off in search of a place to provide their child with an "epic," "Huck Finn-y" childhood, as Burt wistfully envisions it. Some parents might quibble with this aim, given Huck's epic stint as a runaway on a river, but some offspring, even grown ones, might find it pleasurable to imagine their parents dreaming for them a heroic, adventurous youth, rather than the anxious rigors preparatory to an Ivy education and a professional life.
In any case, away they go to visit friends in Phoenix, a sister in Tucson, a cousin in Madison, Wis., and so on each stopover offering interludes with the film's excellent ensemble cast and presenting Verona and Burt with various slices of parenting life to digest or spit out. We don't see much of these places; Away We Go is, until the end, only vaguely concerned with geography, focusing its lens on private scenes even in public places. At a Phoenix dog track, Allison Janney provides hilariously, wildly inappropriate commentary on life with pre-postal husband (Jim Gaffigan) and silently resentful children. In Madison, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton ooze sanctimony as a noxiously evolved couple raising their children via the Continuum school.
During calmer, more sober moments, you may find yourself idly pondering your investment in the drama and domestic arrangements of this financially solvent, utterly in love, ideally suited pair. But the dialogue is clever enough, the protagonists engaging enough to patchily override such cynical thoughts. If you can handle the twee whimsy of a shot in which the itinerant couple's plane is transformed into a leaping dolphin in the reflection of skyscraper windows, you're more than halfway home.
AWAY WE GO opens Fri/12 in San Francisco.