Wednesday, June 3, 2009

EXAMINER #3: Chris Messina runs away with 'Away We Go'

You might recognize Chris Messina. Then again, you might not.
The actor, who may be best known for starring in the little-seen indie comedy “Ira and Abby,” landed a highly coveted role as one of Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch in 2007 before popping up in two of the better films of 2008, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Towelhead,” where he worked with Academy Award winners Woody Allen and Alan Ball, respectively He also starred in last year’s charming pot comedy “Humboldt County,” from directors Danny Jacobs and Darren Grodsky, and the goofy romantic comedy “Made of Honor,” although we don’t have to talk about that one for the purposes of this column. Regardless, 2008 was a stellar year for Messina and credit Variety for spotting his unique talent early.
Messina Madness continues later this year in “Julie & Julia,” where he’ll play Amy Adams’ husband before starring in “An Invisible Sign Of My Own,” opposite Jessica Alba (as a math teacher -- Wow!). Of course, it wasn’t always this easy for Messina, whose early career struggles include just missing out on a role in “The Departed” (which won Best Picture and finally earned Martin Scorsese an Oscar) and co-starring in a HBO medical drama from J.J. Abrams that wasn’t picked up.
But every actor knows that if they wait long enough, it’s possible that breakout part will come, and for Messina, that role arrives in “Away We Go,” an indie comedy from yet another Oscar-winning director, Sam Mendes, and the husband-wife writing team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida.
“Away We Go” stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Bert and Verona, a young, unmarried couple who are about to have a baby and don’t know where they should plant roots and start their family. They travel around America visiting various friends and family members, sampling different cities, but the movie soars highest when Bert and Verona cross the border into Montreal, where Messina’s Tom Garnett lives with his wife Munch (Melanie Lynskey, not to be confused with Richard Belzer), who has suffered multiple miscarriages. They’ve adopted several children and they seem to be the happiest family in the film.
There’s a scene featuring the couples out for a night on the town where Munch starts dancing and Tom reveals that she’s just suffered yet another miscarriage. And as Tom describes how this latest setback has made him feel, Munch’s dance takes on a different meaning, almost like a spiritual cleansing. She just lets go and gives herself completely over to the music and the moment, emoting simply with the language of her body as Tom sits there watching with a look on his face that shows how completely in love with her he is and how much they’ve been through together. He seems to marvel at her strength, admiring how she can soldier on after losing five pregnancies. And while the scene may belong to Lynskey, being the active character onscreen, it only fully works because of how well Messina sells the essence of their relationship. In terms of pure storytelling, the scene is supposed hold a mirror up to Bert and Verona’s relationship -- When times get tough, will they endure in the face of uncertainty, as Tom and Munch have? But Messina helps make the scene mean something else, something… more. It’s at once a truly touching (and silent) moment between a husband and wife, and a heartfelt admission by a father to his friend
The other scene that could well be Messina’s Oscar moment, finds Tom constructing a little house out of diner food, arguing that it’s not a real home without the love, which he represents by drenching the house in gooey syrup. It’s a delicious metaphor that really works, because to Tom, that’s what a family is all about -- the syrup on top -- the love. Not biology.
In his all-too-brief-but-still-perfect 15 minutes of screen time, Messina makes a powerful impression, while Mendes says more about marriage and its compromises and complexities than he did in all of “Revolutionary Road.” “Away We Go” throbs with life, from the laughs and the tears to the rollercoaster of emotions in between, including the fear, the anxiety and the cluelessness. Bert and Verona have no idea what to do, but they know they’ll help each other to get it done because they have supreme faith in one another.
As for the leads, I’ll admit that Rudolph and Krasinski might look ridiculous together on paper, but they have fantastic chemistry together onscreen. Rudolph is the backbone of the film, its anchor so to speak, since everything orbits around the little bundle of joy in her belly, and she gives an eye-opening performance that I honestly never knew she was capable of, judging strictly from her quality work on “SNL.” Meanwhile, I’ve been a vocal critic of Krasinski’s film work. “Leatherheads,” “License to Wed” and “Smiley Face” were all miserable movies that did him no favors, nor did his own directorial debut “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men,” although the less said about that one in a column where I’m trying to sing his praises, the better.
Krasinski’s just always seemed better suited to the small screen, in my humble opinion. Of course, it’s hard to redefine yourself as a film actor when everyone who meets you thinks you’re just Jim from “The Office.” It’s why none of the “Seinfeld” or “Frasier” or “Friends” alums have real movie careers with the exception of Jennifer Aniston (whose career is living on borrowed time while she continues to coast on her wholesome Rachel appeal). Thankfully, Mendes finally cracks the cinematic enigma that is Krasinski, using the actor’s skills to maximum effect, employing his gift of comic timing to make his character’s fears and neuroses relatable. I believe that Krasinski is more than just that one dopey look on “The Office,” he just to find his niche (the semi-slacker indie comedy suits him well) and work with a good director who can adapt his gifts for the bigscreen.
Still, as surprising and impressive as the lead performances in “Away We Go” are, it’s Messina who steals the movie. From the moment he stepped onscreen, I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘who is this guy?’ It’s really one of the two best supporting performances that I’ve seen the first six months of the year, along with Anthony Mackie from “The Hurt Locker,” which we’ll be taking a look at soon. Until then…

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