I've been trying for a while now to figure out exactly what Away We Go proves:

-that Sam Mendes has no facility for directing comedy?

-that when Sam Mendes is a remarkable chameleon able to shed lovely, high-budget prestige pictures for scruffy, quirky independent dramedies without bringing any trace of the one subgenre to the other, and in both cases pitching squarely at the middle of that subgenre's quality range?

-that Sam Mendes doesn't know jack shit about American culture?

-that there's a really wide gulf between the visual quality of any given Sam Mendes movie and its dramatic value?

Okay, so not the last of those. That point has been obvious for years now, with American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead, and last year's Revolutionary Road all argue for themselves as being among the loveliest movies of their respective years (and why not, the first two were shot by Conrad Hall, the latter two by Roger Deakins), while pretty much without exception being pretty thin soup otherwise (and yes, every one of those films has its defenders, except for the ones that don't). It has been suggested to me by multiple individuals that Mendes has no real interest in crafting his own visuals, so that essentially everything about the image is due entirely to the gifted man behind the camera. I don't know that I completely buy that argument, because there's always seemed to me to be a unified compositional mentality behind all the films, and Away We Go vaguely furthers that thesis. Although it also provides pretty strong evidence to the contrary, given how baldly it functions as a Greatest Hits reel for cinematographer Ellen Kuras, a brilliant get for Mendes but also an unfair and unimaginative one: she is the star cinematographer in her price range just as surely as Deakins is the star of his. And for just as good a reason, I admit, and she's in top form here, which is why this is the fifth Mendes film in a raw that makes me feel compelled to claim that it sure as hell looks flat-out godly, no matter what else might be wrong with it.

The curious thing about what's wrong with Away We Go is that the worst bits are just about the worst thing in Mendes's career, while the best bits are just about the best. And all the bits begin with the screenplay by Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida, a married pair of authors who are very much appreciated by many smart people whose taste in literature does not run cotangently with my own. Let me say only that the movie script is quite blatantly a semi-autobiography for the two, admit that this is not necessarily a terrible thing nor a good thing, and leave it before I say something to make an army of erudite literary fanboys take out a contract on my life.

So, the story that Eggers and Vida crafted is about two untethered people in their early-mid-thirties, Burt (John Krasinski, who is 29) and Verona (Maya Rudolph, who is 36). Burt and Verona live together, and are very much in love, and are not married solely because she just doesn't see what the bother is. But they have just conceived a baby together, which is an accident though a happy one, and this triggers something deep and worrying within the couple, and they decide that this is the time to move out of their teeny shack of a home in the Colorado Rockies and find someplace nice and stable to live where they'll have friends or family.

Thus begins a cross-country tour that functions as a study of the psychology of parenthood, and a carnival of grotesques. Burt and Verona's journey starts in the Colorado home of Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara), barbarically selfish people who see nothing wrong with leaving the United States for two years a scant month before the baby's due date; and from there they go to many places in the U.S. and Canada, in sections neatly subdivided off by arch, post-ironic title cards. There's Phoenix, where Verona's literally crazy old boss Lily (Allison Janney) and her boorish husband Lowell (Jim Gaffigan) are functional alcoholics who ignore their children and curse like sailors in front of them; Tucson, where Verona's sister Grace (Carmen Ejogo) is dating the most boring man in Arizona; Madison, where Burt's hippie-dippie fake cousin (Maggie Gyllenhaal) raises her children in the snottiest holier-than-thou manner possible with a zoned-out hippie husband (Josh Hamilton) and all the luxury that a limitless trust fund can provide; Montreal, where the couple's college friends Tom (Chris Messina) and Munch (Melanie Lynskey) live beatifically with a houseful of adopted kids, and sad undercurrent of minor depression; and last to Miami, where Burt's brother (Paul Schneider) has just seen his wife walk out on him and their daughter.

With exquisite precision, the film can be divided into two parts, right at the moment that Tom starts to confess to Burt why things are not all bliss and gumdrops in his tiny corner of QuΓ©bec. The first half is all cartoon gargoyles, outlandishly unreal stereotypes of human behavior played for laughs by the screenplay and by the game cast, but directed with leaden stillness by a deeply-out-of-his-element Mendes - and even if that weren't the case, nobody involved seems to have noticed how ridiculously contrived it all is, as broad as a Looney Tune short and just as zestfully misanthropic, but with none of the wit or creativity.

The latter part of the movie - less than half, but I do not know by how much, seems quite different, although the shift happens invisibly during the movie, at least attempts to be about something approximately human, as the full impact of Burt and Verona's travels start to worm into their minds, and they begin to answer some of the questions they have been asking all along. Compared to the first half, this is tremendously effective psychological introspection on display, and one leaves Away We Go convinced that it has great insight. Upon second thought, however, Burt and Verona's problems are idiotically shallow: circumstances have forced them to be grown-ups faster than they wanted. On the one hand, this is something that I'd imagine happens to a great many people; on the other, it's treated with the smug gravity of a post-graduate writing project, and only urban intellectuals could possibly imagine that a road trip through America is the normal human response to such a situation - and by no means are Burt and Verona meant to be absurdities, but rather warm-spirited Everyparents. Yet in a film full-up with caricatures, they're the two people who are the least believable and (maybe worse) the least interesting. It's all so much navel-gazing, seemingly for the writers equally with the characters. Still the illusion of working, even briefly, is good enough to pass for actually working, given how low the bar has to be set for sensitive tales of adult fears.

If the film ever comes close to working, it's because Rudolph commits her all to the role she's been given, and leaves some vibrancy and life and humanity where none existed on the page; and thankfully, she and Krasinski do have rather fine chemistry (without which the movie would have been not merely a trifle uninteresting and unbelievable and smug, but a flat-out disaster). There's also, as I mentioned, some fantastic cinematography. But in the main this is nothing more than a factory-pressed quirky road movie spiced with the worst kind of stereotypically hipster-angsty protagonists you could hope for. It is a mannered piece that copies without knowing why the scruffiness of similar projects, and fails in the most dire way to make any comments on the state of parenting and coupling in America rooted in actual observation. Mostly, it's much too flat to feel anything strongly about it one way or the other.