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Looking for . . . something: Rudolph in Away We Go.

The Post Graduate

By John Rodat

Away We Go

Directed by Sam Mendes

In The Player, Robert Altman’s 1992 skewering of the moviemaking industry, a screenwriter is shown pitching a sequel to The Graduate. (Trivia: The actor playing the scribe in The Player is Buck Henry, who was, in fact, one of the writers of the earlier film.) In keeping with the satirical tone of Altman’s movie, the pitch comes across as a patently bad one—cynical even by Tinseltown standards. The power of The Graduate relies heavily on the pointed, now iconic, ambiguity of its ending: To follow up on those characters would completely gut the free-standing force of a classic. Henry’s inside joke of a pitch is a primae facie crap idea meant as an emblem of Hollywood’s self-cannibalizing greed.

Sam Mendes’ Away We Go exists, then, as a curious loophole: To the best of my knowledge, the husband-and-wife writing team of Dave Eggers (author of A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius) and Vendela Vida had no specific intention to create a Gen X continuation of The Graduate, but swap a couple of character names and some directorial quirks and it’d work quite nicely as such.

Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) and his partner, Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph), are college graduates living in (slightly inexplicable) rural squalor. Burt sells insurance futures (a vaguely obscure profession standing in, perhaps, for The Graduate’s enigmatic “plastics”); Verona is a freelance medical illustrator. Their tumbledown house is straight outta Appalachia: cardboard over the windows, no reliable heating. Why? Maybe they just suck at what they do? Maybe they are, as Verona worries, just “fuck-ups”? It’s not really made clear.

In any event, when the couple discover that they are pregnant and that Burt’s parents (sufficiently, if not brilliantly, played by Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels) are relocating to Belgium, they feel they’d better . . . well, find someone else to help carry them. So, they set out on a cross-country jaunt of community shopping, visiting an eccentric and varied roster of former coworkers, friends and relatives to find their happy place. (They can afford flights and hotels but not heat? Yeah, I don’t know. Let it go.)

There are some laughs to be found here, the best of them with Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan, who are delightfully horrid as a sodden, desperate and/or embittered couple, haunting the dog tracks of the American Southwest. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton do decent work with fairly clichéd new-agey characters, and Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey serve as the charming, near-perfect modern couple coping with secret pain.

Throughout we see Burt and Verona as bright, personable, well-intentioned though largely unremarkable people. Rudolph is surprisingly good and understated; I had a harder time buying Krasinki’s scruffy doofiness, and missed the underlying intelligence of his work on The Office. It is a testament, though, to the writing of Eggers and Vida that the movie largely avoids big “moments.” The star of this movie seems to be uncertainty itself.

Mendes’ direction reinforces this feeling: The movie’s wit, the cast of oddballs, the eye for set design and color, even the use of intertitles put you in mind of Wes Anderson. But where Anderson is tight to the point of being claustrophobic, in Away We Go Mendes is open and expansive, as if to suggest an intimidating variety of choice.

Which is where Away We Go is most beholden to The Graduate, as spiritual precursor: in its implication that fraught forward motion is both funny and completely inevitable.

Life and Death

My Sister’s Keeper

Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Plucked from the pages of a Jodi Picoult bestseller, My Sister’s Keeper seems more like something you’d find on Lifetime than at the multiplex, midsummer. Its storyline—an 11-year-old girl refuses to donate a kidney to her cancer-ridden older sister—almost demands that the filmmakers include the disclaimer “bring tissues” with every ticket. And the casting of perennially sunny Cameron Diaz as a controlling, overbearing mother is, at best, an iffy proposition.

Still, My Sister’s Keeper manages to engage in spots. Teen Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) has had cancer for most of her life, the central fact upon which her entire family revolves. When traditional treatments fail to work, mom Sara (Diaz) and dad Brian (Jason Patric) resort to engineering a new baby specifically designed to be a perfect match for Katie. Almost from birth, little Anna (Abigail Breslin) has been harvested—for blood, stem cells, bone marrow—to prolong Katie’s life. When the movie begins, she’s hiring lawyer Campbell Alexander (Alec Baldwin, trying for sincerity) to assist her to become “medically emancipated.” Plot twist: Sara is a corporate lawyer, on an extremely extended leave (the movie leaves you to ponder how the family supports their big house and medical bills on Dad’s fireman pay); she takes on her own defense with the same ferocity she exhibits in trying to maintain Katie’s survival.

The movie wends its way back and forth in time, trying to give us a better picture of the main players and how their lives have been shaped by Katie’s cancer. The actors go a long way toward making this material palpable. Patric’s stoic mien belies his character’s heartache and helplessness. In contrast, Diaz imbues Sara with steely determination bordering on dementia. Breslin is expectedly perky and reliable, but it’s Vassilieva who really delivers, fleshing out what could have been a one-dimensional saint with spikes of rage, rebellion and even silliness. Her brief romance with a fellow cancer patient (Thomas Dekker) is one of the movie’s best moments, culminating in a bittersweet, heartfelt kiss that’s heartbreaking.

There’s a melodramatic courtroom sequence, then it’s back to the hospital, where Katie finally gets to have her say with Sara. Diaz is quite compelling when, at last facing the truth, she literally dissolves, a croak escaping from her clenched mouth indicating the extent to which, for years, she has tried to maintain control. Breslin’s beginning and ending voiceovers are maudlin pap, but thankfully, Vassilieva gives us something to stake our emotions on, and her swollen, pasty, bruised-but-smiling face show us a glimpse of real courage and humanity.

—Laura Leon

Primed to fail

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Directed by Michael Bay

Dear Mr. Bay,

I have seen several of your feature films now and I must say that I have developed a unique appreciation for your work. Flashy, garish, loud, nonsensical: These are things I generally don’t look for in a cinematic experience, but you attack your films with such youthful zeal that I find myself rooting for your success. I can’t help but think that, had you directed Moulin Rouge, it would have been a much better film. Keep the high-gloss sheen, cut the Elton John medleys in favor of Linkin Park, drop a few huge explosions behind the endless dance numbers, and voilà—a big, fabulous punch in the face. But I digress.

Your first Transformers movie was a pleasant surprise. It was all of the things I mentioned before, but it was a popcorn flick about shapeshifting alien robots—you had some wiggle room with the whole reality thing. Transformers was, in a sense, the culmination of all your previous work: the day-of- reckoning boom-boom fantasy of Armageddon mixed with the love story within a day-of-reckoning boom-boom fantasy of Pearl Harbor, with a dash of the buddy comedy/love story masquerading as an action picture of Bad Boys. The film was enjoyable, despite the fact that the last 20 minutes were an incoherent splatter of CGI jack-off. Its indelicate mix of slapstick humor and hammer-in-the-groin action made for something approaching the Perfect American Summer Movie. I was starting to believe in you.

Thus, Mr. Bay, it pains me to address you under these circumstances. Watching your latest film, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, was akin to having a strobe light flashed in my eyes continuously for 150 minutes while someone simultaneously boxed my ears and kicked me in the nuts. Is it possible to waterboard someone using hot oil? It wasn’t quite that bad. But: two and a half hours? That certainly borders on torture.

Perhaps you did not receive my previous letter? In it, I explained how all you had to do was make a few tweaks to the formula—change the scenery a bit, add a few new characters, let the action sequences breathe a little—and you’d have an unstoppable franchise.

Instead, you tried to make The Dark Knight. That’s a noble cause, but you’ve got to know your role. While that film was loud and flashy and nonsensical, it thrived on human interaction. Here, the audience has no emotional investment in Optimus Prime, so his demise early in the film holds no currency. I can’t even say Fallen would have worked in abler hands, as it appears to have been made without a screenplay. It’s an endless barrage of CGI bukkake, intercut with greasy slo-mo shots of Megan Fox’s boobs (which also appear to be CGI).

There are so many things wrong with this film, from its comical jingoism (hey kids, let’s blow up the Pyramids!) to its racial insensitivity (I don’t really care if the jive-talking “twins” are supposed to be black, or white kids acting black; bottom line, they aren’t funny) to its sub-juvenile sense of “humor” (repeated nut shots, dogs humping, robots humping Fox’s leg), that it’s easy to miss the one thing that you did right: You put your name above the title.

Now, future generations will have no trouble remembering that one of the worst movies ever made was “A Michael Bay Film.”

All the best to you and yours,

—John Brodeur


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