Discovering the in-laws are leaving town the month before their baby is due, Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) travel the States in search of the perfect place to call home. On route, they reconnect with old friends and family as they test out different states. Through these encounters they wittle (or "cobble") down their choices and work out what 'home' really means for them.
Director Sam Mendes (sooooo many good films) has taken a chance to show us cinema-going-ninny-muggins a sophisticated example of a Bildungsroman genre film. Now usually, these tales are about teenagers and taken on a past-tense vibe to show how they've moved on from angst to adulthood. Essentially though, these stories focus on the psychological and moral development of the protagonist. Here, even though the protagonists lament they might be 'fuck ups' at 33, they are essentially still teenagers, and it's their development which drives the film forward.
Mamas and Papas.
Maybe it's because I've popped an offspring in the last 12 months but I seem to be drawn to films recently about parenting. Part of Burt and Verona's journey is to take a State-wide parenting class and meet every stereotype of motherhood out there. Like a comet hurtling towards parenthood, these Mums (or should that be Moms) and Dads act as mini meteors pinging Burt and Verona off course with each encounter.
Who do they meet? An equally funny and repulsive Lily (Allson Janney) in Pheonix. A ridiculous hippie LN (Maggie Gyllenhall) with a unnatural love of seahorses in Madison. Burt's brother (Paul Schneider) abandoned by his wife in Miami, and the ultimate loving Dad (Chris Messina) and his caring wife (Melanie Lynskey) cheated of her natural right, in Montreal.
Philip Larkin wrote a poem about her...
Warts and all, she loves her kids, but my special mention goes to Alison Janney who plays Verona's louder than life ex-collegaue 'Lily'. Janey seems to have carved out a little niche for herself playing hilarious, over bearing and crass mother characters. 'Lily' could be the sister of 'Betty' who she plays in an equally delightful film 'The Way, Way Back'. There are so many brilliant one-liners. Watch this for an idea...
The NCT Mothergasm
LN Fisher-Herrin (Maggie Gyllenhaal) embraces everything I personally can't stand about motherhood and frankly, people in general. I'm very much in the camp of 'whatever works for you' and anyone with a strong opinion who believes they've got it 'right' can... well, I better not print that. My views on the NHS 'Tit Police' have been well documented.
Needless to say LN is the ultimate preachy, earth-mother. Everything about her entitled-trust-funded-double-barrel-surname-buggy-shaming-group-bed-vegan-smugness made my toes curl...around the edge of my forward facing, dummy filled, formula fuelled stroller. Ack. Betty Draper did it right - head full of drugs and Don waiting outside with the whiskey.
Of course, she's an exaggeration and I can feel confident I won't meet someone like her at my baby groups - for one, there's not enough quinoa and too many raisins - but as part of the Bildungsroman she certainly helps Verona and Burt understand what they don't want out of life with a sprog. We all secretly love meeting these types of people as they help us forge our identities as parents. In my case, by providing a ying to my yang and hours of 'can you believe' type of conversations with the hubby.
The UN of families
A world away from the light and breezy Lily, the movie takes a distinct mood turn when we meet Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey). Our introduction is by way of an aptly metaphoric rendition of 'So Long, Farewell' from The Sound of Music by their mixed nationality adopted kids. This does set the scene. Here is a couple whose love of children is so strong it makes Julie Andrews appear like the child-catcher. Cheated by nature (to quote the bard) Tom and Munch quietly bare the burden of numerous miscarriages, accepting each death with grace. With each tragedy their relationship grows stronger as they push their love onwards to their adopted children and march to the future in hope of finally having one of their own.
This couple, who on the surface seem so breezy and full of life are living under a melancholy cloud of repeated miscarriages and it made me wonder who, of my friends, has also suffered this experience? This film suggests I'd never know, as it's so hushed up and this is a great sadness as statistically, it's common. Even writing this, I struggle to find the language to talk about the death of a baby, we don't have the words as we avoid the topic. I think Mendes was brave to include Tom and Munch
My friend Helen is a film lecturer, and she has a theory about the 'Dead Mother' syndrome. Once you know it, you'll spot it everywhere from Finding Nemo to The Departed. You can't have a good adventure with a mother. Get rid of the 'mother' character and the fun really begins.
Or not if your Courtney Farlander (Paul Schneider) and you arrive home one day to learn your wife has left never to return. It's a strange irony that society (in terms of pop culture films) seems to accept easily the idea of a dad leaving his child, but the other way round is uncomfortable, unsettling, shocking even. But it happens. Not all women are cut out for motherhood. It's a brutal truth that Mendes doesn't dress up or drag out. It's simply a statement.
The overarching theme is the breakdown of family values (she refuses to marry him) and people rebelling against the communities in which they've been reared. A nice twist is Burt's parents, played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges and Catherine O'Hara are the teenagers. Recklessly moving to Antwerp and casually spending $12K on a statue of an Indian Princess. It's a brilliant moment. The incredulous look on Burt's face when he realises he's the grown up now. No more a fuck up, it's time to find stability and future for himself.
This is a film with real heart in it among many layers of light and dark comedy. The psychological and moral development of Burt and Verona is evident by the end of the film as they are reborn as parents in a new home, perfect for their future and one connected to their past. I love this movie and it wasn't what I was expecting as an Office and SNL fan. Unusually Maya Rudoplh is understated, quiet and stoic the 'straight' one to John Krasinski's quirky, vibrant and occasionally slapstick performance. A very perfect blend. Recommend.