From the mind of the man who brought us such interesting and complex characters as Don Draper and Peggy Olson comes one of the most disappointing films of the year. Released simultaneously theatrically and through VOD, Are You Here is the first foray into the world of film from the creator of Mad Men and The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner. The result is a film that is so generic and unmemorable, that remembering the title is a massive feat. It’s not clear if the film’s many problems come from Weiner’s inability to condense character development into a mere two hour run time or from the interference of Hollywood money men, but the result is a disjointed slog of a film that too often falls back on convention and stereotypes just when things start to get interesting.
Are You Here follows the antics of professional asshole Steve (Owen Wilson), a womanizing, pot-smoking weather man, and Ben (Zach Galifianakis), his bipolar, hippy best friend, as they travel to their small country hometown for Ben’s father’s funeral. Here the cast is rounded out by Terri (Amy Poehler), Ben’s high strung, “buzz kill” of a sister, and Angela (Laura Ramsey), the twenty-something widow of their elderly father.
It reads like a standard sitcom set up, creating family discord just by the virtue of these personalities being placed in the same room together. This leads to some lazy writing as it’s all been done before and Weiner (who both wrote and directed) never deviates from the expected. It’s a shame, because (with the exception of Wilson, who sticks to his usual schtick) the cast turns in some of the best performances of their careers, which is all the more commendable given how easy it would have been to phone it in and collect their pay cheque. Amy Poehler and Laura Ramsey are particularly good, managing to give award-worthy performances with what are in essence, nothing more than standard female supporting roles as an antagonist to Ben and saviour for Steve respectfully.
The most frustrating thing is that you can feel Weiner’s trademark insight floating just beneath the surface. The films main thesis of being present in every moment in your life is clearly the premise from where he started, but it’s been buried under so many layers of Hollywood melodrama and coding that it is barely visible unless you’re looking for it. By the time the end of the film comes around it has to be stated outright in an awkward moment between Ben and Steve just to make sure the audience got the message. This is Mad Men lite–a film that is trying to give an honest depiction of people and their motivations, but doesn’t have any faith in the intelligence of its audience. Everything is in place for this to be a great film: an excellent writer/director, a fabulous cast and solid cinematography. Instead we get a film that insults its audiences intelligence and its characters with very little to redeem it. At least it’s got Amy Poehler.