While “Mad Men” fans anxiously await the upcoming Emmy Awards and hope that this will finally be the year where one of the cast members takes home a statuette (don’t count on it), the series’ creator and showrunner, Matthew Weiner, has another project out this week. Yet “Are You Here” is being released to little fanfare or excitement. There’s a reason: it’s not very good. When “Are You Here” debuted at TIFF last year (as “You Are Here”), critics were astonished that the creator of one of the finest and most ambitious shows of the past decade could make something so bland and directionless.
Yet Weiner’s hardly the first TV genius to make an underwhelming film debut. Two years ago brought David Chase’s “Not Fade Away,” which, while not without its fervent admirers, met mostly muted reception. John Wells has had a long and consistently acclaimed run in television as the showrunner for the first six seasons of “ER,” the last three of “The West Wing,” and his current project “Shameless,” but his two efforts as a filmmaker have been the wan Great Recession drama “The Company Men” and last year’s Weinstein-ized desecration of “August: Osage County.” Damon Lindelof’s biggest effort for film was the deeply frustrating (though not as terrible as the internet made it out to be) “Prometheus.”
The history of TV auteurs making crappy movies extends far past recent memory, too. David E. Kelley’s body of work includes both TV triumphs (“L.A. Law,” “Picket Fences,” “Chicago Hope,” “Ally McBeal,” “Boston Legal) are film flops “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” and “Mystery, Alaska” (screenwriter only on both). Glen and Les Charles of “Taxi” and “Cheers” fame have only the mediocre “Pushing Tin” to show for their film credits. Between Alan Ball’s HBO hits “Six Feet Under” and “True Blood” lies his heavy-handed directorial debut “Towelhead” (and his Oscar-winning breakthrough script “American Beauty” has become a punching bag in certain circles, too). And the less said about Larry David’s disastrous “Sour Grapes” the better.
Why do most major TV artists make such disappointing movies? A consistent problem in a number of their movies is a tendency to develop as many characters and plotlines as possible without devoting enough time to develop a single satisfying one. “Not Fade Away” is among the more ambitious projects of the lot, but it feels like a lot of episodes of a striking television show mashed together. Ditto for Ball’s “Towelhead,” which features so many traumatic experiences for its mixed-race teenage heroine (including a tyrannical father, a neglectful mother, racist classmates, suburban malaise and a pedophiliac neighbor) in under two hours that after a while it just feels like we’re riding a misery-go-round.
Wells’ “The Company Men” has a germ of a good idea, but it spreads its primary characters so thin that one man’s drastic third-act action feels more motivated by where the script needs to go than by the man’s experiences. And while “Prometheus” was a highly ambitious film for Lindelof and director Ridley Scott, the film has a preoccupation with developing mythology and ideas that it doesn’t fully explore, as if Lindelof is writing a pilot for a “Lost”-type sci-fi show instead of a movie. There’s a habit of TV writers continuing to write as if they’re writing for a series, but without the time to develop any nuance to the different threads they’re working on.
Even some of the better TV-to-film writer transitions got there by staying within the realm of serialization. Chris Carter’s two films are both based on his popular series “The X-Files.” Joss Whedon’s first feature as a director was “Serenity,” an entertaining continuation of his gone-too-soon series “Firefly” that can’t do justice to the terrific cast of characters from the show; it also makes the demise of one major character (who isn’t given much to do in the film before that anyway) feel like a cheap attempt for shock. Most of his earlier film projects are either work-for-hire (“Toy Story”) or essentially rough drafts for what he’d later do on television (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” both “Alien: Resurrection” and “Titan A.E.” for “Firefly”), and he’s currently working as a major figure within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, another serialized project.
There are, of course, exceptions to any rule: Terence Winter’s screenplay for “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a more than worthy successor to his work on “The Sopranos” and arguably better than anything he’s done on “Boardwalk Empire.” J.J. Abrams’s films all have major story issues, but he’s such a skillful visual filmmaker that those shortcomings often don’t register in the moment. And James L. Brooks numerous successes on television (“The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Lou Grant,” “Taxi”) are matched by triumphs on the big screen (the Oscar-winning “Terms of Endearment,” the even better “Broadcast News”).
Though he’s not without his failures (“I’ll Do Anything”), Brooks might be the best example for major television figures who want to break into the movies to follow. Both “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News” have strong centers (Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in the first, Holly Hunter in the latter) and only a few other major characters whose relationships with the heroines help define the film. Without wanting to squelch ambition, perhaps it’d be best if TV writers try not to bite off more than they can chew the first time around.