With a quirky style that is reminiscent of his Oscar-winning film "American Beauty," director Sam Mendes creates a textured tale that stereotypically and yet genuinely explores a variety of American lives. Written by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, the story focuses on a young couple in their early thirties whose pregnancy launches them on a journey to figure out what kind of family and home they want to have. (This story has adult sexual content and is not for children or sensitive viewers.)
In love and yet unwilling to accept her boyfriend's repeated proposals of marriage, Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) is a graphic designer. Her boyfriend Burt Farlander (John Krasinski) is an insurance agent whose underachieving nature matches Verona's creativity as they live a simple life in a rundown trailer home in the woods. When Verona becomes pregnant, they are surprised to discover that Burt's parents, Jerry and Gloria (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara), intend to leave the country to live in Belgium for two years.
Having moved to the area specifically to be near his parents, Burt and Verona realize that with their departure, they can live anywhere they choose. Thinking of locating near family and friends, they plot a course that takes them into various cities and various families in an attempt to find their place. It is this journey that allows us to explore many forms of family life that are found today, though these are often presented in humorous and stereotypical exaggeration.
Using a montage of homes, we travel to Phoenix to find an old coworker whose loud, rude and abrasive personality has alienated her children and her family. From there we travel through the barren desert to visit Verona's sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) and discover that Verona's brooding pathos is due to the loss of their parents a decade earlier. From there we take the train to Madison where Burt's friend is an earth-mother who shares her bed with her husband and children. Next we go to Montreal where mutual friends from college have created a family of adopted children, hiding their deep pain from multiple miscarriages.
It is at this point in the journey that Burt's brother Courtney (Paul Schneider) calls for help because his wife has left him and their young daughter. Quickly traveling to Miami to be with them, it is here that both Verona and Burt make their commitment to one another to be together for life. In a quasi-marriage ceremony in which they promise their "I do's" to a series of questions, the two make a decision that leads them to their "home."
In a day when family is being redefined, it is not surprising that artists are exploring the various forms a couple might choose. With no spiritual or even communal input in their lives, Burt and Verona are on their own and only "hope" that they can make a home for themselves. This rudderless journey is represented by all the various unhappy forms of marriage and family they meet on their odyssey and, as Verona expresses in the end, they have little assurance that their choice will be any more successful. Sadly, this is a realistic concern and honest assessment for people who have untied themselves from marriage vows and bonds as well as spiritual faith and community.
Discussion for those who have seen the film:
1. When marriage becomes only an option and family a preference, then children are raised in a world without form. Do you believe this will be healthy or unhealthy for the next generation of Americans?
2. Is Burt's comment that he "understands that Verona will not get married because her parents won't be there to see it" a valid reason for her to reject his proposals? What would you say or do if you were Burt?
3. The healing that comes at the end of the film is necessary for Verona to move forward with her life. If these were real people, do you believe they would find happiness in this decision? Why or why not?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.