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[Editor’s note: This review for Are You Here was first published when the film was titled You Are Here.]
TORONTO — It’s understandable that for his first stab at feature filmmaking, Matthew Weiner might want to explore territory far from that of his brilliant long-form television drama, Mad Men. But it’s disappointing, even downright depressing, that the man who invented Don Draper couldn’t come up with anything better than the tired bromance refugees played by Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis in Are You Here. While it aims to explore the crooked path to male self-knowledge and a more harmonious place in the world, this tonal mess rarely puts a foot right as comedy and makes only marginal improvements when it turns poignant toward the end.
That end, by the way, takes almost two full hours to arrive in a sluggish film without the substance to fill half that time. Not to harp on the Mad Men comparison, but it’s puzzling how a writer with such compelling insights into the complexities of human behavior and relationships could think this wishy-washy indie dramedy had anything interesting to say.
A serial dater with a permanently maxed-out credit card, Steve (Wilson) habitually turns up late and stoned for his weatherman job at an Annapolis local news channel, making inappropriate comments on air. No laughs so far. His best buddy Ben (Galifianakis) is a paranoid bipolar semi-recluse living in a cabin off the grid, where he rants about environmental disaster and world chaos while occasionally scribbling away at his visionary book. His only outside contact is with Steve, who supplies him with weed and wry dude humor.
The suspicion arises that Weiner knows this snooze of a setup plays like something lifted from a bottom-drawer script pile of ’80s buddy comedies. The whiff of desperation is apparent in a fast-motion montage of Ben, sleepless and manic, set to the comic opera strains of The Mikado. Randomly eccentric music choices are a frequent fallback option, from country crooner Bobby Bare singing “Dropkick Me, Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life)” to Celine Dion warbling “My Heart Will Go On,” because it’s a cheesy song and that always gets a laugh, right?
When Ben’s father dies without warning, Steve accompanies him to his rural Pennsylvania childhood home. The farmhouse is occupied by his dad’s widow, Angela (Laura Ramsey), a barefoot 25-year-old New Age hippie in a white cheesecloth nymph gown.
Amy Poehler is too gifted a comedic actor not to yield funny moments, but Ben’s abrasively controlling married sister Terry is a role she’s played before in countless better variations — just like Wilson’s and Galifianakis’ characters. Terry braces to battle Angela over the estate. But instead it emerges that their father left the house, the 150-acre farm, the general-store business and $2.5 million in assets to Ben in the hope that he’ll get his life together.
That windfall prompts both euphoria and anxiety for Ben, who wants to turn the farm into a utopian community with a “Sick and Tired of the Bullshit” manifesto. Steve just sees it as a way to bankroll a life of bong hits and babes, encouraging the unmercenary Angela to stick around and keep an eye on his unstable buddy. That job proves a handful when Ben starts taking naked flits and scaring the nearby Amish folks.
It’s hard to invest in the predictable conflicts that arise for characters as poorly drawn as these. Will Angela put aside her aversion to Steve’s flakiness and act on their mutual attraction? Will Ben agree to take mood stabilizers and tame his erratic behavior? Will Terry succeed in nullifying the will by having her brother declared psychologically incompetent? And will Steve get the old oak tree growing beside his apartment chopped down to enable an unobstructed view of his hot neighbor? These questions are all of equal weight, which is to say none.
The actor who comes off best from this bundle of undercooked humor, cheap misogyny and shallow sensitivity is Galifianakis. Forced to take stock and act on his problems, Ben grows in ways that provide the movie with some much-needed heart, and his arc comes closest to the model of the James L. Brooks comedies Weiner appears to be emulating.
Steve, on the other hand, makes an entirely rote and unconvincing transition as a douche of a guy slowly confronting the emptiness of his existence. If Weiner had explored the idea that Steve wants Ben to remain a screwup for his own selfish reasons, the dramatic developments might have had more of an edge. Instead it comes down to conflict over the lovely flower-child trophy Angela, ending with a cliched kiss in the rain.
Back to Mad Men again, that show’s elevated position in the pop-cultural consciousness is at least partly due to the meticulous attention to detail that goes into its visual aesthetic. The series superbly manipulates mood and atmosphere to train shafts of illumination on often opaque characters. Despite the recruitment of key collaborators from the AMC drama — including producer Scott Hornbacher, cinematographer Chris Manley, production designer Dan Bishop, editor Christopher Gay and composer David Carbonara — Are You Here looks completely generic and lurches from scene to scene with neither flow nor a cohesive tone.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Cast: Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Poehler, Laura Ramsey, Paul Schulze, Edward Hermann, Peter Bogdanovich, David Selby, Lauren Lapkus, Greg Cromer, Jenna Fischer
Production companies: Gilbert Films, Weiner Bros.
Director-screenwriter: Matthew Weiner
Producers: Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Matthew Weiner, Scott Hornbacher
Executive producer: Keith Addis
Director of photography: Chris Manley
Production designer: Dan Bishop
Music: David Carbonara
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Christopher Gay
Sales: Lionsgate International/CAA/ICM
No rating, 113 minutes.
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