AFTER charting the implosion of a marriage amid the stifling sterility of the American suburbs in Revolutionary Road, Sam Mendes heads for the horizon with Away We Go (**), an unbearably precious road movie that clearly wants to be – as one character puts it – a bit "Huck Finn-y" but comes across a little more Zach Braff-y.
The opening night gala at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival, it's the kind of movie that wallows in winsomeness, kooky characters and the overbearing use of Nick Drake-style songs on the soundtrack. Unfortunately, unlike films such as Braff's Garden State, Mendes's clinical touch ensures that you never feel anything for the protagonists – a listless
thirtysomething couple searching for a place to call home ahead of having their first child.
That's a problem because Mendes presents them with an air of smug self-satisfaction that neither John Krasinski nor Maya Rudolph manage to break through. They play Burt and Verona, a resolutely unmarried couple who are heading towards their mid-thirties yet spend a lot of time fretting over whether or not they're "f***-ups" thanks to the dodgy wiring in their house and the piece of cardboard patching up a long-broken window. Given that this seems to be the extent of their woes, it's hardly surprising that when Burt's unbearable parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) announce they will be moving to Antwerp before the arrival their first grandchild, they freak out, aware that they'll have no support network should having a baby prove hard work.
Deciding they need to find a new home to lay some roots in an effort to feel like proper grown-ups, they set off around the country, scoping out places to live and reconnecting with past acquaintances. It's a fairly thin premise and the film's writers – novelist Dave Eggers and his wife (and fellow novelist) Vendela Vida – offer surprisingly few insights into modern relationships. They do, however, supply a hell of a lot of jokes that fall as flat as the pancakes they torturously try to turn into life metaphors. The film's supporting characters – including Maggie Gyllenhaal as a militant earth mother and Allison Janney as an outrageously inappropriate mother of two – are little more than contemptuous caricatures, there to make our self-absorbed protagonists seem more likeable and slightly less dysfunctional. Alas, all they really add are additional layers of irritation. What a disappointing start to the festival.
Unfortunately, there's more quirky family dysfunction in Rebecca Miller's The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (**), which finds Robin Wright Penn on the verge of a "quiet nervous breakdown" as the titular wife of an elderly publishing magnate (Alan Arkin) who has prematurely moved them to a retirement community. Something of an enigma to her family and friends, Pippa has pretty much devoted herself to others for much of her adult life, but long-suppressed neuroses are beginning to manifest in sleepwalking.
That's the film's cue to start flashing back and forth to a childhood and adolescence spent trying to escape from a mad mother (Maria Bello). It's also Miller's cue to start piling on the idiosyncratic character details and visual flourishes. Hairy, monkey-like babies, lesbian aunts, S&M photo-shoots, pill-popping orgies, psychotic suicidal lovers, animation sequences, still photography montages… Miller throws the lot at us, but the effect is wildly uneven, swinging uncomfortably from melancholic contemplation to outright hysteria. Is it supposed to be funny? Serious? A myriad of different acting styles from the big-name cast (which includes Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Monica Bellucci and Keanu Reeves) suggests both, which would be fine were these performances blended with some consistency. Adapting her own novel, there's no doubting that Miller gives us plenty to chew on; it's just a shame so little of it proves dramatically nourishing.
After all this, it's something of a relief to be confronted with a film like Easier With Practice (****), which proves that low budget, genuinely independent American films can still tell interesting stories without becoming self-consciously cute in the process. That was certainly a danger here, given the plot revolves around an aspiring author on a self-funded book tour who finds himself engaging in a surprisingly meaningful phone sex relationship with a woman who randomly calls his motel room one night. Mercifully, debut writer/director Kyle Patrick Alvarez is more interested in exploring the complicated ways people search for emotional connection than exploiting a potentially salacious premise for artificially comedic or edgy effect. In a sensitive, vulnerable, uninhibited performance, Brian Geraghty does a fantastic job of drawing us into 28-year-old Davy Mitchell's lonely life with much empathy, skilfully negotiating the potentially problematic sight (for us) of watching someone fall for a fantasy. Naturally, the film builds to a possible meeting with Nicole, the sultry, mysterious phone voice, but it never goes in quite the direction you expect, and unlike Away We Go, feels like and honest and truthful dissection of modern relationships.