Matthew Weiner has written or co-written a dozen episodes of The Sopranos and dozens more of his own creation Mad Men, seven of which he also directed. These are the facts that will create expectations and puzzlement over Are You Here, in which those skills fail to translate to a feature film. It’s an odd one, and not in the assured, mesmerizing way that a great episode of Mad Men can be odd. Then again, a feature film is not much like a television episode — especially not for a series like Mad Men, which often feels like a selection of cutting, precise short stories. Are You Here feels more like a novel — also not a great fit.
Owen Wilson plays Steve Dallas (sadly unrelated to the Berkeley Breathed comic strip character), an often-stoned slacker who has maintained a lifelong friendship with Ben (Zach Galifianakis), who is like a less stable, even less employable version of Steve. Both actors, then, are playing to their personas, and at times the movie seems to be attempting to answer the question of what these personas, particularly the immature weirdo so often favored by Galifianakis, would be like transferred into the real world, outside of the contrivances of buddy comedies. When Ben’s father dies (not unlike the loss Galifianakis experiences in The Hangover Part III, of all things) and leaves some of his property to him, Steve accompanies him on a trip to their hometown to sort out the matter. There they encounter Ben’s irritable sister Terri (Amy Poehler) and his Zen-like stepmother Angela (Laura Ramsey), closer to his age than his late father’s. Steve takes a liking to her, because she’s very pretty — and that seems to be why the writer-director likes her, too. Jenna Fischer has a microscopic role later in the movie; not to backseat cast, but she seems like she could have given Angela some more life.
Regardless, Steve is smitten with Angela; Terri is angry with Ben and especially Steve; and Steve tries, in a lackadaisical and self-serving way, to help his friend, who is doing soul-searching of his own. Put together, this suggests sort of an Alexander Payne version of Wedding Crashers, but that suggests more momentum than Weiner is able to muster for Are You Here. Steve keeps leaving town and coming back to check on Ben, and the movie shuttles back and forth aimlessly with him. Weiner displays little sense of pacing, devoting a solid five to ten minutes to the cooking and eating of a single chicken, and another five to ten to a subplot about Steve spying on his comely neighbor (some of this material is scored like a big-studio comedy, compounding the strangeness when the movie turns to these incidents for profundity). It’s not that Weiner doesn’t know comedy, exactly; Mad Men is often very funny. But that show has the benefit of not aiming for comedy, and therefore generating unexpected laughs. Here Weiner gives Wilson some good lines, and even a few flashes of absurdity to Galifianakis, mixed in with glassed-in quality. (Ben, describing the group he wants to create with his inheritance: “If we can create a profit-free society, we can reap the tax benefits of said society.”)
Mad Men is too great a series to not cast some manner of shadow over this small film, however unfair. Wilson and Galifianakis are playing the types of guys who might’ve slid into advertising (and a politely unhappy marriage, and a string of affairs) in the sixties; in a story set now, they drift along, collecting neuroses and affectations. Steve is the one with a real job, but the movie’s dialogue shares Mad Men‘s aversion to direct exposition. So when the movie begins with Steve talking about his philosophy to a girl on a date and then, in a quick cut, continuing as he chats up a high-end prostitute, he could easily be a trust fund guy, a freelancer, or a bum; it turns out, a few scenes later, that he’s a weather man for a local news program. (Movies like to imagine that local weather men are the emptiest souls around; this conceit worked well in L.A. Story and The Weather Man, but now is starting to feel like an aggressive assertion of the showbiz food chain.)
Weiner is getting at something, I think. I’m not sure exactly what. Once in a while, the visual distinction of the Mad Men house style pops up. One scene opens on a close-up of a whirring fan, creating doubt over whether the scene before it was real or imagined; another focuses on the hum of a kiddie ride in front of a supermarket. But most of the time, Are You Here ambles on pleasantly, then pokily, then frustratingly. Maybe next time.