Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s thematically ambitious comic drama Are You Here is shot, cut like a quality cable series, and plotted like an adaptation of a Boomer writer’s lesser novel. It’s easy to recognize its literary or televisual potential—how the narrative’s well-rounded characters, subplots, and motifs could develop over 500 pages or a 13-episode season. As a film, though, it amounts to less than the sum of its parts. It’s not that Weiner’s narrative—in which the struggle over a small-town inheritance provides multiple angles on the writer’s pet theme, the search for happiness—couldn’t fit into a movie. It’s that only a director of the first order could make its non-stop tonal shifts and perversely un-cinematic subject matter work.
It goes without saying that Weiner isn’t one of those directors. (For what it’s worth, the ideal candidate would seem to be the late Robert Altman.) He is, at best, a perfunctory master-medium-reverse stylist, and his work here with longtime Mad Men cinematographer Chris Manley mostly amounts to making sure the movie’s locations—fast-casual restaurants, offices, generic houses and apartments—are as evenly lit and unspectacular as possible. With the exception of the final two shots, which provide the narrative with an arbitrary ambiguous endpoint, the filmmaker never uses the camera to create drama.
To Weiner’s credit, though, he’s much better when it comes to sculpting performances. For all of its de-centered wonkiness, Are You Here boasts some fine, complicated dramatic work from actors largely associated with comedy: Owen Wilson as perma-stoned Annapolis weatherman Steve Dallas; Zach Galifianakis as his severely bipolar buddy Ben Baker, who unexpectedly inherits his father’s business, estate, and North Carolina farmhouse and tries to turn it into a utopian commune; Amy Poehler as Ben’s sister, Terri, whose attempts to wrestle the inheritance away from her brother provide the movie with most of its meandering, anticlimactic drama.
Weiner doesn’t necessarily write intriguing characters (one could argue that Don Draper’s backstory is Mad Men’s major weakness), but he excels at fleshing them out and having them voice ideas and express dissatisfactions that feel authentically in-character but also fit snugly within a larger, overarching theme. Are You Here is trying to be a wide-ranging, complex exploration of a fairly simple idea—that people’s lives are defined by how they reach for an impossible happiness, and by the compromises they end up making to feel satisfied. It’s possible to imagine the bigger picture; it’s just not on-screen.