Trains of Thought

Sam Mendes barely catches his (Away We Go). Ridley Scott's gets derailed (The Taking of Pelham 123).

While the rest of us have been sitting around contentedly with 3-D glasses on our faces, Sam Mendes has been quietly redefining the American family drama. Last year’s Revolutionary Road, for all its DiCaprio-in-a gray-flannel-suit deconstruction of 1950s conformism, muddied up the waters considerably with Michael Shannon’s supporting portrayal of a tormented, perspicacious outsider. Before that, the UK native Mendes exec-produced The Kite Runner and directed the Iraq war film Jarhead, but all along he seems to have been aiming his most penetrating investigations — beginning with American Beauty and continuing through his producing project Things We Lost in the Fire — at the fragile state of the American family.

That investigation takes a left turn into fresh territory in Mendes’ Away We Go, ostensibly a routine meet-the-folks romantic-comedy road trip, but one that signals us from its very first scene — John Krasinski going down on Maya Rudolph in bed — that it’s traveling an alternative route.

Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Rudolph), a married couple expecting their first child, make a refreshingly non-glamorous pair. They look lived-in, like any couple you’d run into at a farmers’ market in a university town, shopping for cilantro. The way Burt and Verona are imagined by San Francisco writer Dave Eggers — who wrote the screenplay with his wife Vendela Vida — we might as well hang a “Mr. and Mrs. Alt America” sign around their necks as they travel around the USA visiting friends and family. In this case that’s a good thing, not a liability. Self-conscious Burt and Verona are trying to research possible hometowns and rediscover their roots, and in so doing we find out something about them. Not everything there is to know — they’re fairly complex people — but enough to make the trip meaningful. With the requisite laughs of self-recognition.

First, we meet Burt’s parents Jerry (Jeff Daniels) and Gloria (Catherine O’Hara), two Sixties survivors suffering from early-burnout syndrome (“Are we fuck-ups?”). It’s a tribute to Daniels and O’Hara that we don’t want to spend one minute longer than necessary with Jerry and Gloria, puffing on the joint of forgetfulness. Next stop: Phoenix, where Verona’s former boss Lily (Allison Janney, in fine form) and her nervous mate Lowell (Jim Gaffigan) tussle with their affectless lumpen offspring. Uh-oh. Then it’s on to Tucson to see Verona’s warm-hearted but harried sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo), contending with kids in a bathtub. The more we see of their families and friends, the more we realize that Verona and Burt are truly on their own in the child-rearing department. Everyone else seems to have made a hash of it.

They journey on. In Madison, there’s a wince-producing pair of intolerant New Agey former classmates named LN (née Ellen, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Rod (Josh Hamilton), who regard the gift baby stroller Verona and Burt bring them as if it were coated with anthrax. Then it’s on to Montreal for a visit with some disappointed adopters who use pole-dancing as therapy. And Miami — another brother with adjustment issues. It begins to look as if everyone Verona and Burt know is either morose or pretentious, or both. But V&B have a secret weapon all their own, the childlike tale of the barren orange tree with fruit taped onto it — as heavy-handed a metaphor for the mysteries of the dysfunctional nuclear family as we are likely to encounter.

Let’s not hold either Eggers and Vida’s laborious similes nor Mendes’ often-snide narrative shortcuts against the two lovers, though. Saturday Night Live veteran Rudolph and Krasinski (TV’s The Office) bring an undeniably organic, refreshingly candid appeal (do we dare call it wholesomeness?) to Verona and Burt, which they’ll obviously need if they’re going to raise a child in a world filled with soothsayers like Mendes and Eggers. Away We Go may be Mendes’ most coherent critique yet of the vulnerable family module, but it succeeds almost in spite of itself. What we really believe in are Verona and Burt and their Spanish-moss-covered Victorian on the water, somewhere in the South, and their orange tree story, come what may.

While we’re on the subject of credos, if you believe that the 1974 actioner The Taking of Pelham One Two Three cried out for a remake, we’ve got some prime Manhattan underground real estate we’d like to show you.

No need to know that the original even existed. The Taking of Pelham 123 (note the subtle rewording) actually functions on its own, feebly, as a serviceable 21st-century thriller — terrorists under New York streets, Wall Street panic amidst the chaos, etc. — but veteran directorial fireball-hurler Tony Scott (Deja Vu, Top Gun) messes it up, as usual. When a squad of heavily armed guys led by a maniac named Ryder (John Travolta, replacing the original’s Robert Shaw) commandeers a subway train and demands $10 million ransom for the frightened passengers, mild-mannered transit official Walter Garber (Denzel Washington in the Walter Matthau role) steps up to match wits with the marauders, as it were. Scott’s camera pirouettes, cars crash, and every cast member but the deliberately subdued Washington froths, ostentatiously.

The chief over-actor is Travolta. Neck-tattooed ex-financial exec Ryder (perfect perp profile) not only nurses a deep grudge against humanity, he has an ulterior motive — to drive up the price of gold and make more than one kind of killing. Where Shaw, in the earlier pic, was a model of polite, compressed menace, trash-mouthed Travolta is a standard psycho killer. The premise is just as faulty as it was in the 1970s — the yeggs get away with the loot by simple trickery, despite the fact that one of the passengers surreptitiously uses a Webcam to broadcast the hostage drama. Ryder, too, can’t go anywhere without his laptop.

Soft-spoken Washington is the more interesting of the two. Already under investigation for taking bribes, he’s further humiliated by Ryder, but Scott & Co. throw away that subplot in favor of more and bigger explosions. John Turturro and James Gandolfini, as a cop and the mayor, respectively, get lost in the shuffle. Too bad. With a little story work (Brian Helgeland wrote the screenplay, from John Godey’s novel), Washington, Turturro, and Gandolfini might have been freed up to tell a decent New York corruption story alongside the heist stuff. But then we’d be deprived of Scott’s beloved machinery. A man his age (he turns 65 next week) is too old for electric trains.


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