Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Are You Here

When TV weatherman Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson) asks for his job back after quitting in disgust following years of bad behavior, he’s startled to be welcomed back—and given a promotion. “Jeez, what do you have to do to get fired around here?” he asks.

You might ask the same thing of Matthew Weiner, the writer/director/producer of this rambling, tedious film, which keeps going and going but never gets anywhere. Stumbling from unfunny “comedy,” like an icky, overlong sequence in which Steve kills a chicken, to drama that’s generally either unconvincing or overplayed, Are You Here can’t settle on a tone.

There’s not much of a plot, as we tag along behind a sitcom-ready pair of odd-couple best friends, Wilson’s Steve and Zach Galifianakis’s Ben, a bipolar bear of a man who looks like a hermit and acts like a hyperactive four-year-old. The pacing is clumsy and the characterizations shallow, sometimes to the point of stereotype: Amish people are treated like a white version of the Magical Negro, totems of pious forbearance who listen gravely to the nutty main characters and offer them sage advice.

It’s more than disappointing; it’s baffling. I mean, we’re talking Matthew Weiner, the famously hands-on creator/producer/writer of Mad Men. Yet just about everything that show does so brilliantly, including complicated and deeply sympathetic female characters, realistic yet evocative story lines, and smart and subtle dialogue, is turned on its head here.

The women in this movie are so thinly sketched it’s impossible to care what happens to them. Ben’s sister Terri (Amy Poehler) starts out an angry control freak and then becomes irrelevant, just as she’s starting to show more dimensions. A pleasant-seeming neighbor (Jenna Fischer) who turns up in the last few minutes to meet cute with Ben, seems more like notes for a character than the thing itself.

The men are a puzzle, often doing things that seem out of character or simply inexplicable. Ben is bipolar, so it makes sense that he should act erratic before he starts taking his meds, but it shouldn’t be so hard to get a handle on Steve, who seems at times like a callow, sweet-talking jerk and at times like a true friend and a good man. Of course, one person can contain many contradictions and mysteries—just look at Don Draper. But Steve Dallas doesn’t feel like a nuanced, complex, conflicted human being. He feels like an underdeveloped concept.

Written for The L Magazine

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