I’m a sucker for those rare cinematic occasions when form becomes function, so perhaps I was an easy mark for Matthew Weiner’s directorial debut “Are You Here.” A big glorious mess of a movie, the feature debut of the “Mad Men” creator teems with ideas that he valiantly attempts to stuff into the more traditional comedy that the pairing of Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis naturally implies and while it may not necessarily have been Weiner’s intention to make a film with such jagged edges, it’s unnervingly appropriate for a film where the leads go soul-searching in such a way where the meandering is meaningful.
This isn’t to say “Are You Here” is without focus, finding its center between the two extremes of Steve (Wilson) and Ben (Galifianakis), childhood friends who have grown into two distinctly different people despite still bonding over late-night bong hits. They are connected by growing up in a small town and their deep discontent, enabling them to understand each other like no one else, yet Steve’s concerns run towards the self-centered while Ben wishes he could harness all that’s inside him to change the rest of the world for the better. It’s a jarring juxtaposition when we see the two together onscreen for the first time minutes into the film, after Steve extolls the virtues of an anything goes lifestyle to a woman at the bar with the conviction of a wry Don Draper, only to be paying a call girl at the end of the evening and slinking his way over Ben’s place, a hovel that could only belong to an author of many unpublished novels.
The film makes the collision particularly harsh aesthetically, transitioning from something slickly shot and brightly lit with an overbearing soundtrack in Steve’s life as a seemingly successful TV weatherman to the murkier feel of Ben’s hazy, claustrophobic shack and once Ben gets the news that his father has passed away, the road the two travel back home only gets rockier as these two styles intersect. However, it’s the road less traveled that’s appealing to Weiner, quickly dispensing with the tropes of either the buddy comedy or the road trip film that synopsis might suggest as Ben and Steve go on their own paths towards personal fulfillment.
Though it seems as if that might happen quickly for Ben after the settlement of his father’s will leaves him with an unexpected bounty, much to the chagrin of his sister Terri (Amy Poehler), the money only complicates matters as Ben embarks on building an ill-conceived non-profit utopia dubbed the “Omega Society” and Steve takes a break from his spiritually unsatisfying work to get his hands dirty tending to Ben as much as his family’s farm. Still, the 144-acre parcel of land feels awful small when the two are joined by Angelina (a luminous Laura Ramsey), the young, free-spirited mistress of Ben’s father whose certitude bewitches them both while causing them to reflect on their own deep uncertainty about the direction of their lives.
Since “Are You Here” sets up such an obvious comic premise, it’s likely to raise expectations that Weiner has no interest in fulfilling, despite the fact that it certainly has its share of raucous, outlandish moments, reminding audiences that its director’s acclaimed drama has time and again risked its dramatic credibility with such incidents as having a character run over by a lawnmower in the office or another being sprayed by bullets during a hunting trip. Yet it’s also a film that’s serious about not paying lip service to one finding their place in the world, willing to spend long scenes on exploring notions of self-worth, depression, thought pollution, sex, and the constitution of family. It’s also a film serious about being a film, with Chris Manley’s cinematography often rising to the level of Weiner’s sparkling dialogue when “You Are Here” starts to veer from convention along with its characters.
In the context of a feature, Weiner doesn’t have the same luxury of building momentum as he does with a series, so the metaphors are perhaps a bit brusquer, the score too heavy, the payoffs can feel a bit rushed and the balancing of the storylines are not always delicately handled. (And yet a recurring motif of the parade of women Steve is interested shot in the same side profile made me understand why TV recappers get excited at the prospect of writing 10,000-word analytical essays about Betty Draper’s wardrobe.) But although I’ve already heard others dismiss “Are You Here” for formal sloppiness and there’s no question Weiner is still feeling things out in his first feature, in making a film about finding the right priorities, he’s found the right one himself, opting to lead with emotion and letting the film take the gangly shape of life itself, pushing past a formula it was birthed out of to get to something indelibly human.
Given the refined reserve of “Mad Men,” the wild sprawl of “Are You Here” may come as a surprise, but besides the dark sense of humor, the two works both draw from Weiner’s compassion for flawed individuals, armed with a specific set of principles and trying to do right by others and not necessarily realizing they can’t or won’t when serving their own self-interest. Despite the fact that Wilson and Galifianakis both play to the personas they’re most known for, the roles call for them to tweak them ever so slightly to emphasize the undercurrent of anxiety that runs just beneath the surface to make them a part of a larger world that they’ve rarely been able to tread in other films. Despite a surfeit of dialogue, Ramsey and Poehler aren’t given as much to say as foils for the two men, but they’re still both allowed their moments, as are Jenna Fischer, Peter Bogdanovich and Edward Herrmann who all add a nice flavor to the piece in cameos.
As overwhelming as “Are You Here” can be, it’s those individual instances of brilliance, particularly in the writing, that make the film work. Though its bursting at the seams with interesting tangents, the one singular image that has stuck with me most from the film is the sight of a chicken running around with its head cut off after Steve tries his hand at farm work, lingering on his expression before seeing what happened to the poor bird. The absurdity of the situation isn’t lost on Steve, as mildly frightened as he is bemused in watching the chicken scramble for its life aimlessly before silently realizing a truth about himself. “Are You Here” takes a similarly violent and occasionally ridiculous and bewildering path towards finding inner peace, but when it does, it’s deeply satisfying.