Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the release of Andy Samberg’s Palm Springs and the latest Ghostbusters sequel getting pushed to 2021, we’re highlighting movies starring Saturday Night Live alumni.
Away We Go (2009)
Maya Rudolph has carved out a reasonably eclectic film career since leaving Saturday Night Live, with roles in several great comedies including Bridesmaids, MacGruber, and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. On the other hand, much of her post-SNL filmography has been dedicated to voiceover work, as well as recreating an old-fashioned variety-show sensibility—sketch-comedy cameos, guest shots, co-hosting an actual variety show—whenever possible. She also has four children with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, which may have informed one of her too-rare starring roles in the 2009 dramedy Away We Go.
Rudolph plays Verona, one half of an expectant (and unmarried) couple with Burt (John Krasinski), whose idea of preparing for parenthood involves learning different types of knots, taking a “family defense” class, and taking up whittling, which he mistakenly refers to as “cobbling.” Verona, meanwhile, prepares by watching (and making fun of) a pregnancy exercise video and wondering aloud if she and Burt are fuck-ups, given that they’re thirtysomethings without plenty of “basic stuff” figured out yet. When Burt’s parents announce their plans to abscond to Belgium for two years rather than help out with the baby, this family of two (and change) takes a trip to decide where to move next, with an eye toward putting down roots.
A substantial chunk of the stops on this trip involve brazen caricatures, most notably Allison Janney whooping it up as a crass, filter-free livewire at a Phoenix dog track and Maggie Gyllenhaal viciously satirizing nouveau-hippie, stroller-free helicopter parenting in Madison, Wisconsin. Even with Paul Schneider, Melanie Lynskey, Chris Messina, and Carmen Ejogo leavening the cartoonish quality in their scenes, it’s easy to understand why the movie, written by husband-and-wife novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, was dinged for hipster condescension when it came out. (A.O. Scott memorably opined, “this movie does not like you.”)
That seems debatable; after all, what irritates hipsters more than the feeling that they are expected to identify with a character? But what really gives dimension to the family tourism is Rudolph’s unshowy but rich performance as a woman who feels both ahead of schedule and well behind. Although she’s known for her outsized sketch-comedy personalities, Rudolph spends much of Away We Go time quietly working out her fears and insecurities as she watches other families try to do the same thing, whether earnestly or with unearned confidence. She downshifts her voice to a softer tone, to the point where one of comedy’s best mock belters whisper-sings a lullaby of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It’s a performance so sensitive and plainspoken that she makes Krasinski’s lightly buffoonish character more likable just by looking at him with affection—even when she announces, “your pregnant girlfriend is going to kill you.”
Away We Go is part of a loose, unofficial trilogy of domestic strife movies from one-time wunderkind Sam Mendes, an epilogue less lacerating than the suburban malaise of American Beauty or Revolutionary Road. It’s no accident that there’s a running gag about Verona’s worry that she and Burt haven’t had fights intense enough to raise their pre-baby’s heart rate above “chill”; this is the rare movie about couplehood that doesn’t gin up personality conflicts for its drama. Instead, it addresses new-parent anxieties with plainspoken clarity. It’s also, admittedly, the kind of semi-indie that only filmmakers with a pre-existing pedigree can really get away with—a modest, unassuming product of obvious privilege. Again, Rudolph comes to the rescue. How often are SNL figures called upon to serve as a grounding presence, and how often do they succeed as consistently as she does here?