Matthew Weiner’s “Are You Here” is the worst “Mad Men”-related disaster since Sally Draper walked in on her father and Linda Cardellini going at it last season. And that was pretty bad, especially since Sally has already barged in on several passionate trysts—happily, not always involving her old man. “You Are Here” is far, far more soul-crushing: a supposed passion project that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival with an air of mystery. Would Weiner’s first feature be a comedy? Would it have the feel of the modern television classic? Or perhaps seem linked to Weiner’s sitcom roots? And would it be any good? The answers to those questions are yes, no, yes, and my goodness, no.
“You Are Here” is a shockingly inept comedy, a project with the look and style of a mid-’90s Ivan Reitman or Harold Ramis comedy, not the first film from one of our finest TV writers. The first warning sign arrives with the opening credits: David Carbonara’s musical score is easily the worst in recent memory, a trumpet-y abomination that, like the movie itself, seems trucked in from some weak-kneed Chevy Chase vehicle. Yet in some ways, the music helps prepare the audience for what is to come. Warning sign number two is the introduction of Owen Wilson’s Steve Dallas, an Annapolis weatherman—yes—with a smarmy, Owen Wilson-like charm (go figure). As he smooth talks some ladies and has his credit cards denied, it is clear we are watching a character the actor has played before, in far better films.
Warning sign number three is the arrival of Dallas’s best friend, Ben Baker, a rotund stoner-philosopher played by a Zach Galifianakis-y Zach Galifianakis (go figure). Within minutes, Ben is bum-rushing Steve’s workplace, fighting off security guards, and emotionally breaking down—his father has passed away. Steve, who comes and goes at the office, accompanies Ben back home to a contrived, poorly sketched family situation. Ben’s grocery-store-owner father was married to the adorable, much younger Angela (Laura Ramsey is the film’s sole saving grace, giving a sweet, likable performance). For obvious reasons, Ben’s shrewish sister Terri (the great Amy Poehler, wasted) cannot stand Angela, and she is also worried about the clearly unbalanced Ben.
Terri is even more upset when her father’s will leaves almost everything—the grocery store, the farm house, a couple million bucks—to Ben; this move is barely explained. Soon, Ben is living back home, Steve is falling in love with Ben’s stepmother, and Terri decides to explore her legal options. Soon, Ben is forced to abandon his weed and his hippie-ish dreams for a medicated, more strait-laced life. Steve must wrestle with his feelings for Angela, his seemingly rudderless career, and the changes in his best friend. If this all sounds confusing, that’s because it is. If there is a silver lining among all of this, it is the performance of Laura Ramsey. Yes, her New Age-y Angela is not the most original of creations, but the actress performs with conviction and poise. She is the film’s freshest face, and its most memorable one.
“Are You Here” is intended to be a comedy, and it is a laugh-free one that runs for almost two hours. Weiner’s occasional attempts at profundity—especially the film’s final scene—are clumsy at best, and a genuinely surprising moment late in the film is then tied up with one dope-y kiss in the rain. Elements that feel as if they may lead to something of relevance, like Steve’s job as a weatherman, head nowhere. Terri’s failure to have a baby is dropped, almost as if Weiner grew bored with the character. This is one-note writing, right down to the sneaked cigarette out the window. Steve’s cad offers no surprises, and while Ben’s recovery leads to a nice scene or two—and the always unique sight of a bearded Galifianakis—there is little complexity, and even less of a reason for being.
What is most difficult to comprehend here is what drove Weiner to devote so much time and energy to so lackluster a story. There is nothing wrong with a change of pace, or with using success in one medium to take on something very different in another. But why this story, at this time? Why saddle talented actors like Wilson, Galifianakis and Poehler with hackneyed roles and subpar material? And how can we avoid comparing the film with “Mad Men”? Too many questions, yes, but the truth is, “Are You Here” is a film so bad that these questions are the only thing worth discussing. [D]