Sunday, June 28, 2009

A lot of film critics hated it, but "Away We Go" was a sellout its second night in Madison

Seeing a Sold-Out Showing of "Away We Go" at Sundance
It must have had great word-of-mouth. The movies we go to usually aren't sellouts, but we were lucky we bought our tickets online. Otherwise we would never have made it into the sold-out 7:15 showing Saturday night at Sundance Cinemas Madison. We enjoyed it, the public mostly liked it, Roger loved it, The Onion liked it -- but many critics absolutely hated it.

"Away We Go" belongs to that tiny genre of movies that also includes David O. Russell's 1996 screwball classic, "Flirting with Disaster," in which a young couple copes with the anxieties that come with getting ready to become parents by undertaking a road trip on the flimsiest of pretexts. In "Flirting with Disaster," the adopted Ben Stiller is trying to find his birth parents so he'll know what genetic heritage he's passing on. In "Away We Go," John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are looking for a place to make a home for their child. The former is wackier and more surreal. "Away We Go" begins with some wonderfully cutting social satire but goes on to conclude with real depth of feeling. Maya Rudolph's performance is amazing.

The website is an aggregator that's great for getting a snapshot of critical opinion by assigning numerical values to critics' review (and moviegoers' comments) -- an imperfect, subjective process, but it's good at capturing patterns. In this case, the public seems to like the movie much more than the critics, judging from the average score, a mediocre 57. But this isn't one of those homogeneous responses in which most critics share the same lukewarm critical reaction. This is one of those movies that people either like a lot or dislike a lot. There's no real middle ground, except for the misleading numerical average.

Many of the critics who disliked the movie didn't seem to be reviewing the movie at all. They misrepresented the protagonists as slackers and anti-social narcissists. They interpreted social comedy as mean-spiritedness. They scarcely talked about the performances. Instead, they seemed to be settling scores with the movie's creators -- director Sam Mendes and screenwriters Dave Eggers and his wife Vendela Vida, accusing the former of being a snotty foreigner and the latter two of being solipsistic slackers. Knocking the movie was their way of attacking one or another, or all, of its creators. It seemed to be a relexive, emotional response.

Hard to tell what triggered such fury, but the NYT's A.O. Scott was typical. The normally even-tempered reviewer became spiteful and nasty.
To observe that they inhabit no recognizable American social reality is only to say that this is a film by Sam Mendes, a literary tourist from Britain who has missed the point every time he has crossed the ocean. The vague, secondhand ideas about the blight of the suburbs that sloshed around “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road” are now complemented by an equally incoherent set of notions about the open road, the pioneer spirit, the idealism of youth.
[ ... ]
But you should also understand that you are not welcome. Does it sound as if I hate this movie? Don’t be silly. But don’t be fooled. This movie does not like you.
The reviewers who liked the film also seemed to be participating in a referendum about is creators. In a rare swipe at another critic, Roger Ebert referenced Scott's words in his own conclusion.
I submit that Eggers and Vida are admirable people. If their characters find they are superior to many people, well, maybe they are. “This movie does not like you,” sniffs Tony Scott of the New York Times. Perhaps with good reason.


Gabrielle said...

Those reviewers you quoted sound to me like they just watched the trailer and not the actual movie.

froggyprager said...

nice review and commentary on the reviews. I have not seen it but look forward to seeing it. I loved other similar off-beat movies (Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, The Royal Tenenbaums, Flirting with Disaster) and really like the cast.

I would imagine that part of the reaction to the movie is based on the reaction to the main characters and people like them. If you don't like people like that, you probably would consider them "slackers and anti-social narcissists" and not enjoy a movie where they are the heros.

It also seems to be a movie that is in between a good high quality movie that critics like and a dumb comedy that are popular but not liked by critics (Judd Apatow films).

What did you think of the Madison part of the film? I think that is funny that our town has that stereotype.

Dr Bud Diablo said...

You neglect to mention that much of the film is set right here in Madison and skewers its "progressive" residents. Did Madison audience members laugh at those caricatures? They could use the practice.

Part of the reason the movie elicits such critical hostility is that Dave Eggers wrote it. Eggers is rolling in so much dough that when the Heinz Foundation awarded him a $250,000 grant, he turned the whole wad over to 826 National, the writing workshop he helped found to encourage creative writing among the disadvantaged. He has also received various literay prizes.

Martin Amis's THE INFORMATION describes the consuming envy and hatred that Richard, an obscure literary type who writes for THE LITTLE MAGAZINE, feels toward his "friend" Glynn, who tosses off best-selling novels. The cutthroat competitiveness of the literary world is hilariously and chillingly depicted.

I think a lot of critics hate Eggers for his success. Whether he deserves all of it is an open question, but some of the literati experience Eggers's gain as their loss and are always crouched in the underbrush, waiting for Dave to amble by. They wouldn't want anyone to mistake Eggers for a "real" writer. Good writers--like themselves--toil in under-compensated anonymity.

Madison Guy said...

The Madison part was very funny but did seem to be satirizing certain Bay Area New Age excesses more than anything found in Madison. And I was a bit disappointed that the filmmakers didn't spring for at least a bit of B-roll footage of our fair city, even if they couldn't bring the cast and full crew here,