They say that Matthew Weiner is a control freak, exerting his will on the tiniest details of Mad Men. They say, or at least The Atlantic says, that he “can be dismissive of what he calls the ’Hollywood reaffirmation thing.’” Which makes his feature directorial debut, Are You Here, its own kind of experimental cinema. Don’t get confused, the movie is banal fluff, a compendium of undeveloped ideas and humorless jokes, but it’s such a shift in tone from Weiner’s TV work, and so uncharacteristically unpolished in its execution, that, charitably, one hopes it’s a one-time venture into unexplored territory for the writer-director.
The film follows Steve (Owen Wilson), a self-centered, philandering TV weatherman from Annapolis, and Ben (Zack Galifianakis), his offbeat, hippie best friend. When Ben’s father dies, he leaves Ben a $2.5 million farm and store to run in the hopes that it will force him to “get his shit together,” though for Ben it’s just pressure from beyond the grave to sell out his way of life. The immediate difference between this and Weiner’s work on Mad Men and The Sopranos is, of course, the genre. Mad Men has its humorous moments, mostly involving drugs, but Are You Here is an unabashed comedy, by turns of the romantic or bromantic variety.
Part of the film’s problem is that it can’t seem to choose which of the two it wants to be. “That’s the thing about friendship: It’s a lot a rarer than love,” says Steve at one point, and of the countless inane philosophical statements spoken in Are You Here, it’s one of the few that actually seems like an appealing theme for the film. But it’s the pursuit of romantic, not platonic, love that ends up dominating the story, and in either case, Weiner never seems comfortable writing in a consistently lighthearted tone. The beats are off throughout, most pointedly when Ben buys an entire cooler of crayfish to prevent the animals from being used as fishing bait. Twice Weiner cuts to new scenes that turn out to be 10-second excuses to unfurl a disappointing punchline. (“I’m not arguing with the spirit of operation crayfish,” says Steve in one of them, “I’m just saying it was overfunded.”) The rest of the film feels similar, as jokes are tossed into the script on a prayer and land in every case with a thud.
The female characters on Mad Men are probably the show’s strongest asset, but here they’re hollow to the point of insult. Once you get past the side characters who either sleep with Steve, worship him, or are solely there for him to ogle at, you’re left with the simplistic dichotomy of Ben’s hard-nosed sister, Terri (Amy Poehler), who tries to take Ben’s portion of the inheritance, or the calm, maternal Angelina (Laura Ramsey), Ben’s young step-mother who becomes Steve’s love interest and source of redemption. Which isn’t to say that Ben and Steve are paradigms of complexity, only that they’re given the undue privilege of being the center of everyone’s attention. Ben is a lightweight version of Galifianakis’s manic man-child with a distasteful twist: The character is actually meant to be dealing with a mental illness. And Steve is the prototypical irredeemable bachelor who learns that there’s more to life than “getting laid or getting high.” That lesson is sufficiently shoved down our throats, but perhaps the final insult in Are You Here, a film that offers a trite life lesson every five minutes, is how little else Steve seems to learn. He sails through on his charm, which I suppose was what this film hoped to do, though I can’t imagine anyone doing much more than shaking their heads at such a failed attempt.