Are You Here (United States, 2013)August 21, 2014
Are You Here is a character-based drama from writer/director Matthew Weiner, who is perhaps best known as the creative force behind Mad Men (he was also a writer and producer for The Sopranos). The film focuses on interpersonal relationships: friendships, family ties, and love affairs. It tiptoes into the darker, lonely places where some retreat when the spotlight of daily living dims. And it lauds the transformative powers of drugs for those who are mentally unbalanced. The problem with all of this is that Are You Here is less than two hours long and, to effectively explore issues and themes of this magnitude would require at least a full season of a TV series. So we're left with half-developed characters and quickly sketched relationships.
At least the characters in Are You Here don't remain static. All four principals have well-defined arcs. There's Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson), the charismatic TV weatherman who evades the shallowness of his existence by being perpetually stoned. His best friend is Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis), a bipolar recluse who relies on Steve's influence to keep him from getting into too much trouble. Ben's sister, Terri (Amy Poehler), is a career-driven woman who clashes with her brother over everything, especially how to spend their late father's inheritance. Finally, there's Angela Baker (Laura Ramsey), the young widow whose new age-y outlook on life results in her becoming homeless when her husband dies - the only thing he bequeaths to her (at her request) is "the stars" they shared together.
Weiner has cast several actors against type, putting familiar faces in foreign territory. Owen Wilson, known for his comedic roles (although he has played serious parts before, such as the serial killer in The Minus Man), gives a compelling portrayal of a man who outwardly seems to have it all but inwardly craves a sense of belonging. The glibness that initially defines Steve erodes under the influence of sobriety to reveal a hollow and broken psyche. Wilson is solid here; one wonders whether he has drawn on his publicized personal tribulations in fleshing out Steve.
At first, Zach Galifianakis seems to be playing the same character he essays in seemingly every film (his Hangover personality). Weiner, however, switches things up by not only transforming Ben into a figure of reason and moderation but getting Galifianakis to shave off his beard. This results in a startling physical metamorphosis. Amy Poehler, normally viewed as sweet and sunny as a result of years of typecasting, crafts a hard-as-nails, career-minded woman whose inability to have children has soured her marriage. The fourth performer with significant screen time is character actress Laura Ramsey, who I remember for her work in The Ruins. She and Wilson exhibit a nice, unforced chemistry, although their romance is too understated for its importance in the third act to work the way Weiner intends. (Although the film's ending is lifted almost verbatim from The Notebook.)
Are You Here contains its share of lighthearted moments but this isn't a comedy. In fact, some seemingly humorous moments camouflage deeper and darker meanings. Consider the banter between Steve and Angela when they discuss why she married an older man. He thinks he's being clever while making a clumsy pass at her. What she's saying, however, are things he doesn't want to hear about the importance of connecting with another human being regardless of his shape, size, or age.
It's easy to become frustrated with Are You Here because it affords tantalizing glimpses into a world where it would be enjoyable to spend a relaxed vacation but, because movies like this are constrained to run less than two hours, we're provided with too little to be satisfying. It's a tease: worthwhile in some ways but ultimately too diluted to offer a fulfilling movie-going experience.
Are You Here (United States, 2013)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Matthew Weiner
Cinematography: Chris Manley
Music: David Carbonara