You see it in sitcoms, on Broadway, and in the cracked-family movies that generate buzz at Sundance. It's the comedy of quirkiness, in which ''eccentric'' characters are placed on screen to inspire an amused whatever! shrug that little ping of superiority we feel when a petty, deluded narcissist is pinned down and wriggling. Away We Go, a youngish-couple on-the-road comedy directed by Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road), from a script by Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, is a gilded entry in the cinema du quirk. It's a movie that invites you, all too often, to feel superior to the people on screen. Yet it's been designed, shot, and edited with unusual finesse, and the two main characters are fresh screen types. Both are brainy, leftover-bohemian free spirits, and to the extent that the movie's condescension echoes their alt-dropout mystique, it's not just smugness. It's an expression of who they are.
Burt (John Krasinski), who's 33, works for an insurance company but treats his job like an imposition, the implication being that he thinks he's meant for better things. With his ironic geek glasses, indie-rock beard, and attitude of post-masculine weariness (he's there to serve and be whimsically grumpy about it), he stands in for a subculture of ''creative'' types who have never gotten over their failure to actually create anything. Burt's girlfriend, Verona (Maya Rudolph), is pregnant, and though she's as directionless as he is, she at least knows that they're treating parenthood as just another chapter of postcollegiate languor. ''Are we f---ups?'' she asks. Yes, they are, but as they set out to visit their friends and relatives in Arizona, Wisconsin, Florida, and Canada, searching for a city to live in, they discover something redeeming: Everyone they know is even more of a f---up.
Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara play Burt's parents as exaggeratedly self-involved ciphers, and Allison Janney overacts as Verona's shrill, brash, vulgar former colleague. A sequence with Maggie Gyllenhaal as a pious New Age feminist academic is so over-the-top I didn't buy it for a split second. But then, in Montreal, the film settles down in a scene with Verona's college chums (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey), whose rainbow coalition of a family is full of love and hidden pain. For just a bit, the prospect of having a child starts to look as magical, and as daunting, as it should. Krasinski never loses his hip detachment, but Rudolph makes Verona, in her very lack of direction, a creature of furious, defiant flesh and blood. She anchors the quirkiness of Away We Go, and transcends it, too. B–