Matthew Weiner is one of the greatest TV writers and creators ever, thanks to Mad Men, a show that changed TV forever, and helped shepherd the glorious cable TV evolution. With Mad Men soon drawing to a close, it appears that Weiner has his sights set on the big screen. He’s earned a long rope, but Are You Here, the first film he’s directed since What Do You Do All Day? (back in 1996), is a jumbled, meandering mess that doesn’t inspire much confidence.
The film opens with a series of shots that you’d be forgiven for thinking was from Wedding Crashers. After all, it’s Owen Wilson unfurling a spiel to potential pick-ups about how he’s just having fun, that he sees marriage and kids as a type of prostitution. Somehow the women eat it up, even as his credit card is routinely declined, his act tired. Finally, both of his cards are declined, this time by a prostitute, who takes issue with his stance on prostitution. While she has a point, I mostly take issue with this movie.
Owen Wilson is Steve Dallas, a swarmy weather man for an Annapolis news station. He’s a pot-smoking drunk who skates by life devoid of meaningful human interaction, save for with his best friend Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis), and even then, it’s clear he only hangs around Ben to feel like the better half, the one with his life figured out. Of course, he’s no better. Ben is a bipolar schizophrenic, AKA what we’re used to seeing Zach Galifianakis play in The Hangover and Due Date. When Ben and Steve drive into the country for Ben’s Dad’s funeral, again, you’d be forgiven for thinking that perhaps you’ve stumbled upon an(other) unwanted sequel of those aforementioned movies, or a parallel universe where Owen Wilson starred in them. It’s not pretty.
For more than half of the movie, Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis are essentially parodying themselves and their career, and it’s not enjoyable, insightful or funny to watch (of course Galifianakis takes his shirt off…11 times). The movie seems to skate by their reputations, and we’re supposed to find them lovable merely because we’ve liked them in other movies. It doesn’t work, as we’re left wondering what the point of the movie we’re actually watching is.
Things are exacerbated by casting Amy Poehler as a conniving, evil woman. Nobody wants to dislike Amy Poehler, and nobody should have to, but that’s the position we’re put in. Amy Poehler is miscast as Ben’s mostly awful sister Terry, who wants their father’s money. When Ben gets the house, his estate and the grocery store (to help him get his $#*! together), and Terry’s left with 350,000 measly dollars, she brings the issue to court, arguing that Ben doesn’t have the mental faculties necessary to handle the financial windfall. She’s probably right, but that also doesn’t matter in the eyes of the court. The Judge isn’t concerned with how Ben spends his money, and neither do we. Who cares?
Nobody deserves the money, and nobody knows what to do with it, but Steve hangs around the fractured family like a succubus. When we first see Ben and Steve together, we think that Ben is a hangers-on, the one holding Steve back, the one taking advantage of his friend, and rightfully so: he’s financing Ben’s life. But that quickly changes, or perhaps, reveals itself to be untrue.
There are seeds of true friendship, as Ben “feels alone in the universe, except” for Steve. But Steve also has eyes on Angela (Laura Ramsey), Ben’s hot step-Mom, because going after a widow will make Steve’s character even more likable. Plus, we’re supposed to believe Steve is charming, even though he’s also a pathetic, drunken louche. Terry thinks Angela married her father for his money, but one of the only refreshing things about this movie is that Angela so clearly loved their father, and also didn’t want anything in return. She’s really the only character we’re left to root for, but she’s thrown into an awkward, painful and blurred lines of caretaker and love interest.
Steve argues, in one of the few moments where he’s not a douche, that friendship is rarer than love, because no one is it in it for anything. It’s a profound statement (one that Steve actively disproves), one of many well-written and insightful commentaries that Matthew Weiner intersperses throughout the proceedings, dispelled like wise fortune cookies bon mots that always seem out of place, as tasteless and airy an experience as actually eating said fortune cookies. From what I can gather, the point of the movie is that there is none. Whether we eat meat, are vegetarian or are the ones (spoiler alert) literally chopping off the heads of chickens, that doesn’t matter. Steve tries life sober and while he improves at his job, it’s meaningless and he’s still miserable, and doesn’t even get the girl. Ben, forced to give up weed and take up medication to keep his money, instantly (drugs are awesome!) becomes a cog in the machine that he had been so militant against joining previously. Whether you’re a pothead vagrant from society or a schmuck taking medication to become just like everyone else, you don’t feel anything either way. It’s valid (if black and white, fatalistic and depressing), but rings as hollow as those same ole fortune cookies, because it highlights precisely what’s missing from Are You Here: heart.
There’s no pleasure in this movie except in getting a chance to see Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis shed their personas from earlier (when it’s almost too late), and in Zach’s case, shed his most noticeable trait (his beard). If Are You Here must be remembered for something, I’ll remember it as being The One Where Zach Galifianakis Shaves, an odd and thrilling sight.
Matthew Weiner clearly has things to say, things that I’d like to listen to, and might even agree with in a more agreeable setting. There are seeds of a good movie here, and clearly a talented cast. But his moribund point (or lack thereof) is lost in the shuffle, because Are You Here doesn’t earn its muddled, cloudy message.
Millennium Entertainment will release ARE YOU HERE in theaters and OnDemand August 22, 2014.