When it played at the Toronto Film Festival, this second feature by Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men,” was titled “You Are Here.” Now it’s called “Are You Here.” But whichever of the two you choose, it’s fairly certain that while watching it you’ll wish you were somewhere else.
In this woebegone comedy, part buddy flick and part romcom, Owen Wilson is Steve Dallas, a womanizing weatherman for a small TV station in Annapolis, Maryland. His only real emotional connection is with his childhood friend Ben Baker (Zack Galifianakis), a bipolar recluse whom he helps to support with regular loans. When Ben bursts into the station one day with the news that his father has died back in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Steve agrees to drive him back to their hometown for the funeral. The upshot is that Ben proves to be the heir to virtually all of his father’s property—something that irks his battleaxe sister Terri (Amy Poehler) to no end. Her only consolation is that the late Mr. Baker left nothing to his young second wife Angela (Laura Ramsey).
From this point the films follows two tracks. One involves the unorthodox uses to which Ben, a champion of all things green, plans to put his inheritance—something that, which coupled with his refusal to take his meds, gives Terri the opportunity to try to have him declared incompetent. The other focuses on Steve’s feelings for Angela, which morph from mere lust to true love. The progress along the two frequently intersects, of course, and a major turn occurs when Ben, who until this point has sported Galifianakis’ signature beard, shaves.
In terms of performance, that’s a major mistake, since it turns out that the facial hair has served a useful function in helping to conceal the fact that Zack can’t act. Clean-cheeked, the dour, virtually impassive fellow proves about as engaging as a dusty doorstop. Wilson, on the other hand, doesn’t have the benefit of having his face obscured at any point in the movie, and tries to coast on what passes for his customary raffish charm. It doesn’t work in this instance, however, because the mots that Weiner has provided Dallas with are anything but bons, and Wilson’s frenzied delivery of them smacks of nothing more than desperation. (Desperation is certainly the keynote of a long slapstick digression in which Wilson has to chase down a chicken and cut its head off. Naturally we’re not even spared the sight of the poor creature running about after the deed is done.) Even worse is Poehler’s unrelentingly shrill turn as Ben’s take-charge sibling, which makes one sympathetic for the plight of her good-natured husband (played by Joel Gretsch). By contrast Ramsay isn’t required to do much more than smile beatifically and dress in country clothing designed (by Wendy Chuck, presumably at Weiner’s instruction) to highlight her physical attributes. (That points to an overall problem in the picture’s attitude toward women generally, which isn’t exactly misogynist but is certainly condescending—perhaps a carryover from the 1960s treatment of them in “Mad Men,” but less tolerable in a more contemporary tale.)
Weiner has been able to enlist some prominent faces to appear in smallish supporting roles: David Selby overdoes things as an eager lawyer and Peter Bogdanovich barely passes muster as a judge, though Edward Herrmann is nicely restrained as the local psychologist. The Lancaster setting, by the way, opens the door for Weiner to take advantage of the region’s Amish ambience, though without much subtlety: some the beards on the men look as though they might be the ridiculous fake ones that Tom Berenger wore as General Longstreet in “Gettysburg.” Otherwise “Are You Here” is technically okay, though Dan Bishop’s production design, David Morong’s art direction and Christopher Manley’s cinematography are workmanlike rather than distinguished. David Carbonara’s score, however, works overtime trying to pump up the limp onscreen shenanigans. It fails miserably, of course.
Some people’s talents are more suited to the long-form medium of the television series than to big-screen features. That may be the case with Matthew Weiner, and if making a total misfire like “Are You Here” persuades him of it, it may represent celluloid well wasted—though a viewer’s time should be spent on more beneficial pursuits elsewhere.