Matthew Weiner‘s You Are Here (Millenium, 8.22) was more or less killed by critics during the 2013 Toronto Film Festival. Then it became Are You Here. (What possible difference could the order of the words make? They could have just as easily called it Here You Are or Shave My Balls or anything in between.) A few days ago I finally saw it. I went in expecting a disaster but came out feeling agreeably diverted for the most part. Are You Here isn’t up to the level of Weiner’s Mad Men at all, but it’s not a calamity. It’s an experimental in-and-outer — a blend of smart, low-key humor with a faint tone of absurdity plus a mild-mannered romance plus a somber inheritance drama involving a fractured family and mental illness, and all of it mixed in with something that feels like a buddy comedy…only it isn’t.
Owen Wilson delivers another one of his laid-back, smooth-ride guys — a booze-reliant, pot-savoring TV weatherman — but he reaches in a few times and digs down and touches bottom here and there. Wilson has been playing this guy for almost 20 years now but I found this permutation to be one of his most likable and poignant ever. (His best since Dignan?) But oh, God…more agony from Zach Galifianakis! I have loathed and despised this fucking animal for years, and it’s profoundly agonizing to sit through another one of his man-diaper performances as a bearded bipolar low-life who comes into a family inheritance. I’ve never found ZG funny, I hate that smug-anal-retard expression he always uses, and I find him physically repulsive. So much so that when he “gets lucky” in Act Three (don’t ask) I made an “ugghh!” sound in my screening-room seat.
But even with Galafianakis in a co-lead role I still found Are You Here to be at the very least half-tolerable and sometimes even affecting. It’s a single — I can’t in all good conscience call it a double — but at least it gets on base, and it’s definitely not painful to sit through. It’s like a James L. Brooks movie with Brooks getting into trouble at the end of Act Two and not quite figuring how to solve it. Is any of Are You Here as good as a good Mad Men episode? No. But you can at least detect the behind-the-camera efforts of a clever, intelligent fellow. Weiner is at least trying to bypass a typical popcorn sensibility and come up with something extra. Okay, so he doesn’t quite pull it off. But I would rather sit through a film that reaches high and maybe fails half the time than a film that doesn’t reach at all.
Are You Here is a movie about friendship and family and how to deal with a somewhat perceptive moron who suddenly has great financial power and the ability to strongly affect the lives of his friends and family, and about the power of a pretty girl (Laura Ramsey) to affect just about everything. And about the pitfalls of addictions as well as the general lethargy and disappointment that brings everyone down from time to time.
“Weiner’s passion project about two buddies getting their lives back on track couldn’t decide what it wanted to be,” Ellwood wrote. “A drama? A comedy? A farce?” My immediate reaction was “why does a movie have to decide what it precisely is in terms of tone and approach? Why can’t it be a blend? Why can’t a film accomodate differing attitudes and moods simultaneously or at least shift between them? Isn’t that what life is like sometimes?
Here’s how director-writer-actor Peter Ustinov put it about 23 years ago in an interview for the Criterion Spartacus laser disc:
“All things in life exist side by side. I think that the prejudice arose from the [’50s and early ’60s when people] expected a film to have one overall color, and anything comic was termed to be relief, which is silly and stupid. Life is full of surprises. The most mature kinds of work are ones in which you don’t know whether you’re going to be asked to laugh or to cry at the next moment. That is really drama as I see it. I don’t believe in comedy comedy or tragedy tragedy or slapstick slapstick. I think it has to be a mixture if it’s going to be at all lifelike and remind people of their own experience.”