D: Matthew Weiner / 112m
Cast: Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Poehler, Laura Ramsey, Joel Gretsch, Paul Schulze, Alana De La Garza, Edward Herrmann, Peter Bogdanovich, Jenna Fischer, David Selby
Steve Dallas (Wilson) is a weatherman whose easy-going, free-wheeling lifestyle is tempered by his long-time friendship with Ben Baker (Galifianakis). Ben lives in a rundown trailer and has effectively turned his back on conventional society, preferring to live away from people and challenging most modern day conventions. He also lacks certain social skills. When Ben learns that his father has died, Steve agrees to take Ben back to the small town where they grew up for the funeral and to learn what, if any, inheritance Ben will receive.
To both friends’ surprise, and also Ben’s sister, Terri (Poehler), Ben inherits his father’s house and several acres of surrounding land, and his father’s store. Terri is horrified, as she feels Ben is unable to deal with the responsibilities involved in running the store, and she’s even more horrified when Ben decides he wants to transfer the house and land over to Steve as a gift for all his years of support and friendship. With the two siblings at loggerheads, there is also the issue of Angela (Ramsey), the young widow of Ben’s father. Terri dislikes her (even though she clearly made the old man very happy), but Steve is besotted. He tries to worm his way into her affections but she’s not easily swayed, and Steve, who usually rehearses his pick-up lines before talking to women, finds he has to rethink his approach.
While Ben and Terri fight over Ben’s plans to use the store as the site for a non-profit organisation, Steve returns to work but not before he asks Angela to keep an eye on Ben. It’s not long, however, before Ben’s behaviour becomes more erratic, and when Steve returns he has to persuade him to see a counsellor (Herrmann) as Terri has insisted on a competency hearing to rule on Ben’s ability to manage his inheritance. Steve continues to woo Angela and finds his efforts are beginning to pay off. When the counsellor advises that Ben would need to take medication in order to meet the requirements of managing the store (however he sees fit), the meds prompt a change in Ben’s outlook. It also brings Ben and Angela closer together, until one night they end up in bed together. And then Steve finds out…
Ostensibly a comedy-drama, Are You Here – on paper at least – looks like a shoo-in in terms of quality. Written and directed by the creator of TV’s Mad Men, with two gifted comic actors headlining, and with a storyline ripe with comedic and dramatic potential, there shouldn’t be any reason why this doesn’t score points across the board.
There are several problems here, and all of them serve to hold the movie back. First and foremost is the relationship between Steve and Ben. Steve is a shallow ladies man whose over-riding commitment in life is to himself, and he has very little time for the feelings of others; he treats his boss (Schulze) with disdain, and the women he meets as objects. He’s a really selfish, unlikeable character, and while Wilson invests Steve with a certain amount of sympathy, it’s not enough to make him any more palatable as the movie goes on. He’s supposed to change and become more self-aware as his relationship with Angela develops but the full extent of his selfishness is revealed when he confronts Ben and Angela over their sleeping together: he acts more like someone who’s had his favourite toy taken away from him than someone who’s truly aggrieved. With this level of insularity, it’s amazing that he could be as selfless and supportive with Ben as he is.
With the central relationship proving unconvincing, the movie’s attempts at drama prove to be off-key and more than a little underwhelming. Terri’s animosity towards Angela is trite and lacks any credibility, and her attacks soon become boring and gratuitous. She’s meant to be the uptight older sister who means well but has a hard time showing it, but thanks to Weiner’s muddled script (and despite Poehler’s valiant efforts), Terri comes across as unnecessarily mean and thoughtless (a subplot involving her attempts to fall pregnant is meant to elicit some sympathy for her but it’s never developed fully enough to be effective). Conversely, Angela is the wise-despite-her-age opposite of Terri, a loving, caring woman who is more accepting of others, and who seems settled in her own skin. The problem here is that there’s nowhere for such a character to go to, and even though she’s attracted to Steve, the romance between them is so laid-back it barely registers as anything more than something for the characters to do while Ben gets his act together.
As character arcs go, Ben’s transformation from woolly-thinking anti-consumer to gifted businessman is the movie’s biggest stretch, given insufficient credence by his father’s belief that he “has it in him” to succeed. It’s also a curious conceit that Ben achieves peace and the ability to properly move forward off the back of some mood altering drugs. Whatever the message here is, it does make the audience wonder if Weiner is saying that success can be achieved through the use of controlled substances. If he’s not then it’s just a way of forcing a change for the sake of the script and adding a bright bow tie in wrapping up one of the plot strands. Galifianakis does his best, but falls back on the kind of comedic schtick we’re used to seeing from movies such as The Hangover (2009) and Due Date (2010).
The comedy elements dominate the first forty-or-so minutes, but are slowly discarded in favour of the rambling, sub-par dramatics of the rest of the movie, leaving the audience to wonder if it’s worth staying on til the end (in the vain hope that things will improve, or at least reach an acceptable conclusion – they don’t). It’s a shame, because with a tighter, more focused script, this could have been an interesting slice of parochial disillusionment, or had something more pointed to say about consumerism, or presented the viewer with at least one character they could care about. Instead, and thanks to Weiner’s equally undercooked attempts at direction, the movie gives up almost as soon as Steve and Ben reach their hometown.
Rating: 4/10 – for a movie with this much potential and talent (both behind and in front of the camera), Are You Here struggles to involve its audience, and is unlikely to linger in anyone’s memory for longer than an hour or so; somnolent and unrewarding, the answer to the titular question is likely to be, “Not really”.