Film review by: Gordon K. Smith
I had high expectations for ARE YOU HERE, the feature film debut for writer/director Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men. I love Mad Men, and revere that there’s at least one cable series that finds drama in character detail and dialog instead of gratuitous flesh/gore and guns in faces (an image that is becoming much too ubiquitous). Surely Weiner’s storytelling gifts would translate well to the big screen.
Well, they do and they don’t.
The setup is certainly promising – Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson, who hails from Big D, wink wink) is a weatherman who’s remarkably confident on-camera, considering he’s a sexist pothead the rest of the time. His buddy-since-childhood Ben (Zach Galifianakis) is an eccentric slacker who also indulges but can’t hold down a regular job. When Ben’s father dies, Steve tags along to the funeral where he meets Ben’s older sister Terri (Amy Poehler in a breakout big screen performance, if you can get over hearing her drop F-bombs) and his father’s young hippie-ish widow, Angela (Laura Ramsey, Mad Men). For awhile it resembles an SNL skit, with everyone wondering why Steve’s hanging around the will reading for no apparent purpose. Said reading turns Dad’s fortune and property over to Ben, much to Terri’s horror. What is Ben going to do with a farm in Maryland Amish country (filmed in North Carolina)? Why, start a Neo-Hippie Earth movement, with Angela’s help. That’s complicated by Steve’s real job back in Baltimore, his own growing interest in Angela, and Terri’s attempt to have her brother declared unsound before he squanders what ought to be her inheritance (with the help of an amusing cameo by Peter Bogdanovich as the judge).
There’s plenty there for a serviceable screwball comedy, but the film looses focus and momentum as Weiner’s script keeps throwing in ideas – religion, psychiatry, drugs (Steve needs to quit them, Ben needs to start them, to control his mental state), sex triangle, sexual harassment on the job, voyeurism, et al. What works so well in the weekly one hour format for AMC seems like that much material crammed into this film’s 112 minutes – pacing suffers, and scenes like the killing and eating of a chicken seem to go on way past whatever point they’re designed to make, becoming as vague as the title. Indicative of the inconsistent tone is a funny early effects shot in which Steve and Ben seem to be in different timelines in the same frame, but it’s an odd standalone bit of surrealism. In fact, I wasn’t sure what points Weiner was trying to make here, or his attitude toward his main character Steve, except that friendship is the most enduring love of all. But he takes a long time to get there, and even Steve’s happy reunion ending seems forced and out of character.
The performances are what keeps you watching, if anything. Both Poehler and Galifianakis get to show some dramatic chops; Wilson doesn’t seem to be doing that much of a stretch. Laura Ramsay strikes the right note as a beautiful New Age-y spirit who’s in direct conflict with no-nonsense Poehler. I’m looking forward to what she and Poehler do next.