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Are You Here
If you wonder when precisely you should give up hope on Are You Here ever metamorphosing into a good movie, it's about halfway through when perpetually stoned city boy Owen Wilson chases a chicken around the farm trying to catch it and kill it for that evening's meal. It's an out-of-character moment of clichéd slapstick from a movie that up until then had been trying to juggle a bunch of oddball characters in a jumbled narrative about friendship, family, death, and change. Maybe it's not meant to be funny, and it's appropriately disconcerting, because that scene ends up being the point at which Are You Here pivots and becomes a tone-deaf drama about redemption.
The fact that this undercooked and overstuffed production is the feature-length debut of writer/director Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, is all the more shocking. Is it just that he doesn't understand how to tell a story that doesn't take more than half a day to watch? Had all these shifts in timbre happened over the course of a television season, when there would be enough room to put some padding in between and allow for the variation of mood to normalize, it might have worked. That Weiner tries it all in under two hours just makes the film a baffling disappointment.
Wilson stars as Steve Dallas, a weatherman in a small market in North Carolina. Bored and lonely, Steve has maxed out his credit cards on prostitutes and loaned all of his cash to his friend Ben (Zach Galifianakis), who also supplies him with most of his weed. Ben takes in so much of the herb himself, he's a little paranoid and maybe also suffering from mental problems that the habit doesn't help. That will become more evident as the pair take a trip back to their hometown to attend the funeral for Ben's father. The old man ends up leaving the family business (a general store) and their vast acreage to Ben, and very little to his uptight sister Terri (Amy Poehler). Terri, who is struggling to become pregnant and have kids of her own (which we won't mention again since the film barely does, either), expected to lose everything to her dad's young, hippy wife Angela (Laura Ramsey), but Angela asked her husband for nothing and he honored that wish, a poetic gesture that's also kind of crappy when you think about it. Terri is no less irked, however, that the money is staying in the family, since it's still not going to her.
You can likely predict some of the conflicts from there. Steve tries to score with Angela while Ben hatches a few crazy ideas about the future. Terri takes him to court and tries to have her brother declared mentally incompetent. This fails, but other things go wrong in the wake of the judgment, leading to the sort of soul searching that happens when you take a hatchet to a chicken's neck and then eat its carcass. Even Ben, who is a vegetarian, eats the meat. The chicken destroys everything!
In those first two acts, Are You Here is harmless and occasionally amusing. Weiner has cast his actors to type. Wilson is a charming doofus who you will adore and want to punch in equal measure, while Galifianakis is basically playing his Hangover character, only this time acknowledging that his manic tendencies are actually real and potentially life-threatening. Poehler is barely in the film by comparison. She shows up to be the killjoy, merely a grouchy Leslie Knope, which is I guess as unfun as it's supposed to be. Only Ramsey, who previously has had parts in horror films like The Ruins and The Covenant, offers anything fresh here. Sure, she benefits some from being an unknown quantity, but at the same time, she exudes such serenity, she successfully pulls off Weiner's goal of upending our preconceptions of what someone like Angela would be like. She is not spacey, but grounded. Surrounded by the crazy and the angry, she manages to hold steady.
Too bad Weiner couldn't find a way to make her Are You Here's legitimate center, maybe he could have reined in some of this mess and created a cohesive expression of his many ideas. The filmmaking shows all the technical know-how that one might expect. Weiner pulled cinematographer Chris Manley and editor Christopher Gay from his Mad Men crew to help him bring the movie to life and put the pieces together, but maybe he should have also poached from the writer's room to aid him in pounding out all the problems in the screenplay. A consistent tone or a singular idea could have done wonders for this film. Weiner seems to not even have confidence in the individual scenes, instead relying almost entirely on David Carbonara's rather predictable music to tell us whether we are supposed to be laughing or take the moment seriously.
By the film's close, there is not much left to do but to stick on some half-baked emotional stingers, giving each character a false resolution. It's a bit like the closing montage in a season finale of a television show, except that since this is a movie, there's no coming back to Are You Here in a few months to do something with all those loose ends.
The widescreen, high-definition image on Are You Here is well done, with sharp resolution, warm colors, and an excellent level of detail. Rendering is strong, with no noticeable digital manipulation.
The soundtrack has been mastered in 5.1 as a Dolby TrueHD track. Volume is good, dialogue sounds crisp, and there is a decent amount of ambient work making use of all the speakers.
Subtitles are available in Spanish and English SDH.
A full-length audio commentary from Weiner.
Skip It. It pains me to see Matthew Weiner bellyflop like this, as I think he's a creator with real talent and his work on The Sopranos and Mad Men is unimpeachable. Something just isn't quite right about his first foray into feature films. Maybe it's a lack of structure, maybe it's too much structure, but Are You Here feels like a bunch of randomly chosen themes and ideas crammed into a two-hour film. Run it through a Syd Field three-act generator, hire some really excellent actors to sleepwalk through the lines, and hope for the best. Sadly, that hope was misspent, because Are You Here is kind of the worst.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.