Both charming and overwrought by a cadre of undeveloped plotlines and too many man-child clichés, Are You Here really is a genre all its own, habitual pot-smoking middle-aged men and the thoughtful women who love them. Just released on Blu-ray and DVD, it’s an endearing first feature-length film from writer-director Matthew Weiner, the creator and driving force behind Mad Men, which for seven seasons has been an emotional examination of mid-century soullessness, drawing its power from tense silences and character deceits. Are You Here runs eagerly in the other direction with women who demand living in the moment and the man-children who love them. It’s near void of Weiner’s signature sentimental darkness, but instead feels dated, like it was written, shelved, and then green-lit on account of “Now we owe you one.”
The film centers around Ben Baker, a less quirky more irritable Zach Galifianakis, whose mental instability and perpetual bong loads keep him unemployed and living in a trailer down by the river. Next to him on the couch is his best friend Steve Dallas, played by sly charmer Owen Wilson. Steve is a local weather reporter whose job is a springboard for getting women into bed—a co-worker, a barfly, a credit-card-declining prostitute, Steve can’t be alone. Even when he is alone, he spends nights peeping on the pretty gal across the courtyard. Between his fear of isolation and Ben’s antics of alienation, they’ve built a co-dependent friendship from which support and admiration has withered. It takes the death of Ben’s father and the sizable estate he leaves behind for Ben to drag Steve back home to rural Pennsylvania, where Main St. runs the length of a football field.
Enter Ben’s sister Terry, played by the undeniable Amy Poehler, whose frustrated by both the size of the estate Ben receives—the farm, cash, and a business left out of fatherly concern—and by his arrested development. She’s no less amused by Steve, whose inebriated gestures make him come across like a cunning pusherman. He’s fascinated by the convivial stoicism of Angela Baker (Laura Ramsey). She’s the half-his-age widow with a back to basics, Earth Mama attitude at odds with the all business Terry, whose tract home and Expedition tell us all we need to know. She’s mad because she can’t conceive and that rears its head in a contentious jealousy. After that it’s a bit of "he said, she said", mental illness, weather reports, Amish passivity, and resolution.
The major flaw in this film is that despite a talented cast and a multitude of interesting characters the movie centers on Steve, a man whose life is built around avoiding emotional intimacy. Call it stunted growth, but Weiner paints Steve’s immaturity as a choice we then examine throughout the film, and it doesn’t elicit much audience sympathy. This is paralleled alongside Ben’s bi-polar disorder and mild schizophrenia. There’s no discussion of a history of mental illness and Ben is merely a daily dose away from sanity—it’s a cheap and quick resolution to a critical point Weiner and crew could have meditated on. They drop the ball on Terry as well, whose husband Red—a straight and funny Joel Gretsch—serves as the punching bag for Terry’s frustrations. In fact, Weiner and Co. drop the ball on every female character in the film. They’re all flat and undeveloped as either nags, sex things or saviors. In fact the most interesting one is Alli—an underused Jenna Fischer—who in the final ten minutes becomes a scene stealer as a single-mother and romantic interest of Ben.
Absent from Are You Here is Weiner’s trademark slow pans and penchant for pondering. Instead the gaps are filled with passive-aggressive digs and pseudo-emotional breakthroughs. Peter Bogdonavich and Edward Herrmann pop-up with a few small-time cameos and Weiner’s commentary offers a few insights into his process, but the film lacks what most films have too much, running time. Are You Here never fleshes itself out. Plotlines and characters are left dwindle and dissolve into the next scene. Instead Are You Here relies on petty quips and a Starbucks soundtrack to show just how possible it is for people to change, if only they met the right girl who could save them and inherited the right farm. Amusing and at times intensely honest Are You Here gets bogged down in a slew of storyline bong loads rather than just sitting back and letting the narrative take effect.