CINEMA: Play It Again Sam

away_we_go_poster_1.jpgAWAY WE GO (2009, directed by Sam Mendes, 98 minutes, U.S.)

PRESSURE COOKER (2008, directed by Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman, 99 minutes, U.S)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

Almost a decade ago a 30-year-old writer named Dave Eggers burst into the literary world with his acclaimed memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  The Pulitzer-nominated book told the story of Eggers being tossed into the role of guardian when both his parents die unexpectedly, leaving the twenty-something freelance writer with the uncomfortable responsibility of raising his nine year old brother.  Heartbreaking Work had a fresh and intelligent sense of humor that was unafraid to drop the irony and add a high stakes emotional urgency to its jokes.  Hollywood has labored unsuccessfully to bring this work to the screen for nearly a decade now butEggers is finally getting his comedic voice onscreen with this new screenplay he has written with his wife Vendela Veda.  While Away We Go may promise more than it ultimately delivers, its astute satire captures something seriously awry in this modern take of stunted personalities struggling with adulthood.

“Are We Fuck-ups?” Verona asks her boyfriend in a moment of post-coital anxiety.  Verona (SNL’s Maya Rudolph) and Burt (John Krasinski from The Office) are the film’s romantic unmarried couple, a thirty-something duo forced to confront their lingering adolescence when Verona becomes pregnant.  They assure themselves they are not fuck-ups and to prepare themselves for life with baby they go on a cross-country trip, looking for some parental role-models as well as a place to lay down some roots.  As you might expect, they find the United States of Child-Rearing is a country in near-collapse.

Borrowing its premise from David O. Russell’s under-rated ’96 screwball comedy Flirting With Disaster, Away We Go has a ball bringing together some of the creepiest parents ever.  Allison Janney is at one stop, a foul-mouthed and boozy mom who casually tosses around words like “nut-sack” in front of her kids, who have hardened into silent witnesses of their crazy mom’s behavior.  MaggieGyllenhaal is the New Age friend “LN”, who still proudly breast-feeds her five year old boy and uses her kids to advertise her own exhibitionist brand of spirituality.  And Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) are no help either, dashing off on their own fantasies of living in Belgium just weeks before their grandchild is set to arrive.

Director Sam Mendes brings a much lighter touch to this than his earlier troubled couples films (American Beauty and last year’s Revolutionary Road) and he gets scores of big laughs, still you wish he would scrutinize Verona and Burt with the same critical eye he gives their friends.  John and Verona make for an impressive couple, they patiently discuss everything together yet their own self-absorption get a pass.  Listening to them talk about the forthcoming child, much of their dreams are about transforming themselves into cool parents.  The couple, Burt with his indie rock specs and beard and Rudolph’s Verona (showing off a sweet depth we haven’t seen from her before) give off such wit and charisma we can almost overlook their narcissism, especially in comparison to their creepy friends.  As the film wraps to a close and as all the nervous couple’s dreams come true (set to some truly awful tunes from singer/songwriter Alex Murdoch) you may find yourself unexpectedly worrying about the fate of Burt and Verona’s child just as this self-satisfied couple have put their concerns to rest.

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The new documentary Pressure Cooker starts off reminding one of an episode of Montel Williams; the story pressure_cooker_xlg_1.jpgcenters around Wilma Stephenson, a tough-talking teacher determined to turn kids around with her boot camp discipline.  Stephenson is a legend in Philly’sFrankford High School system, known for her ability of take students left behind by the school system and turning them into scholarship-worthy chefs.  Her record is undeniably impressive but surely not everyone will warm to a bombastic teaching style that involves meddling in kids romantic lives and telling one insecure teen girl that her eyebrows look ugly.  A little of Stephenson’s tough love goes a long way, that goodness that Pressure Cooker quickly put her on the sidelines to give the earnest and overwhelmed students their place in the spotlight.

Directors Mark Becker and Jennifer Grausman capture a rich portrait of the lives of working class African Americans, seen through the eyes of its adorable and hard-working kids, all whom love their families yet feel the need to break out of their worlds to see a life beyond.  It is never discussed directly but it seems a crime that kids this dedicated should have to struggle so hard to educate themselves and develop their potential.  The world of gourmet food preparation hardly seems to be their first love yet it might be their best ticket out of impoverishment so they’re each holding on through Stephenson’s badgering lessons for dear life.  Particularly engrossing is youngFatoumata , who arrived from Mali not speaking English four years before, and is now on her way to a scholarship, partially based on her ability to carve potatoes into multi-faceted little gems.  She gives a speech to the judges about the differences in opportunities in Mali and America that would seem like flag-waving propaganda if her own story did not speak with such authority.

We see these kids at their churches and at cheerleading practice and we see them struggle to explain fine cuisine to their skeptical, Fritos-eating families.  Then when Ms. Stephenson cracks the whip they’re back to deadly serious lessons on how to make a perfect crepe, with the full scholarships that hang in the balance possibly meaning the difference between a future as a high-paying chef or a future ringing out customers at the nearest big box store.  Pressure Cooker should have given us a little more info about the curriculum and Ms. Stephenson’s own story but on scholarship night, with futures hanging in the balance, this diverting doc cooks up its drama with enough nuance to escape its reality TV set up, if perhaps just barely.

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