[22 August 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Success in one medium doesn’t guarantee success in another. Great actors often struggle when they try to be musicians, while gifted artists aren’t quiet as aesthetically pleasing when attempting to perform. There’s even inner-format faults as well. An award winning TV scribe usually can translate their talent to the big screen.
They are the rarities, however. Typically, greatness in one place doesn’t translate across. Such is the case with Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner’s so-called “comedy” Are You Here. Instead of showing the same sharp sensibility that made said AMC hit, we get a decidedly lifeless laugher.
Some may claim it unreasonable to judge Weiner’s big screen debut based on the success of Don Draper et.al. but in all fairness, without Mad Men‘s mass appeal, it’s creator wouldn’t be given the chance to make this miserable excuse for a movie. Using the by now tired ideal that “flaws” and psychological eccentricities are humorous, Are You Here manages to find a way to insult almost every type it trots out: the sex crazed lothario, the irresponsible stoner, the environmentally minded do-gooder, the angry sibling, the distant father, the far too young stepmother, and perhaps most disturbingly, the unbalanced, bipolar slacker.
It says a lot that the talented Zach Galifianakis can’t save his character, Ben, from being a borderline mental health hate crime. While we are supposed to root for this off the grid hippy throwback, there’s nothing likeable about him. Instead, he’s the butt of one too many jokes, treating his condition (and by proxy, those who suffer similarly) as a powerless punchline.
When Ben learns that his father has passed away, he contacts his best pal and heads out to the funeral. Owen Wilson’s walking waste of a weatherman Steve is said friend, a card-carrying cad with hookers at his literal, speed-dial beck and call. Together, we are constantly told that both of these dudes need to “get their shit together.”
That’s the message Ben’s late father gives him upon inheriting the old man’s $2.5 million estate, which includes a successful business. The post-mortem plan is for the arrested adolescent to be forced via funeral and birthright to become responsible.
This really pisses off his shrew of a sister, Terri (Amy Poehler) who immediately wants to try and get her brother declared incompetent. Angela (Laura Ramsey), the incredibly young widow, isn’t really concerned with the money. Instead, she starts making cow eyes at Steve, hoping to bring out the “good” in him. Naturally, everything ends up in court with as many misfired ideas as possible worming their way into your already fed-up aesthetic.
Many a critic has said that there’s nothing worse than an unfunny comedy (I would argue a non-scary horror film is just as bad or worse, but that’s a digression), and Are You Here proves that point over and over again. When a joke fails to land, or a sequence barely manages to make you smile, you know you’re in for trouble. That this film does so consistently argues for a tin ear when it comes to comic timing and an even worse flair for character depth and wit.
Weiner wanted to get this particular project made for years, even holding back season six of Mad Men to do so, and it shows. This is a first draft made real by a newfound success. Sadly, Weiner the writer never went back to see if his aging ideas were salvageable.
Maybe, back in The Sopranos days (Weiner wrote for that hit show, as well), a character like Ben would have been ribtickling. Perhaps, casting someone other than Galifianakis would have worked. It could be that Wiener is just not capable of creating a realistically humorous look at mental illness. It’s the rare artist who can. Instead, you can see the amateur hour assumptions made here, the zip-a-dee-do-da lunacy to which the movie likens psychosis.
Looking more like an acid casualty than a pothead, Galifianakis simply puts on a tired troll doll demeanor and delivers his lifeless lines like a man facing his final judgment. We don’t care for Ben before, during, or after his ordeal, and since Wiener invests so much of the storyline on what happens to this mad manchild, Are You Here sinks with it.
Wilson’s not much better. We are supposed to see Steve as a frat failure without his buddy’s diagnosis. Instead of bi-polar, he’s Charlie Sheen’s bi-winning (at least, in his own mind). He’s got his gal rap down, can do his job in a cannabis haze, and doesn’t really care about quality of life. It’s all about quantity for this dope, which makes his eventually quasi-relationship with Angela seem wholly unrealistic.
Maybe she sees him as a lost cause who needs caring for. All the audience understands is that we gotta have a love story somewhere, and Ramsey and Wilson are the only two viable candidates.
Which leads us to the women, and what a sad state of cinematic affairs it is. A little bit of shrill Poelher goes a very long way and, unfortunately, it’s the only personality beat Weiner gives her. Granted, she’s far more ‘together’ than her brother, but that doesn’t mean she has to be such a witch trying weasel her dead father’s wishes away from him.
Ramsey, on the other hand, is supposed to be a gold digger, but Wiener doesn’t want to fall into that trap. Instead, he plays her as eager Earth Mother, a naturally nurturing soul who just so happens to bed men several decades older. Perhaps wrapped around a tighter script, or a better visual approach, Are You Here could manage such a switcheroo. Instead, it feels like a vanity project gone horrible askew.
Indeed, Weiner will forever be known as the guy who brought early ‘60s savoir faire to post-millennial television. With its incessant smoking and office highballs, Mad Men both reminds us of a certain kind of past while deconstructing what said status symbols meant. Are You Here is really nothing more than an excuse for a celebrated TV success story to spread their wings. Sadly, by doing so, Matthew Wiener obliterates anything entertaining.