A sentimental comedy, driven by a white male who utilizes his relationships with various women and his mentally ill best friend to achieve a deeper understanding of his own life. I could be describing any number of features which Hollywood spews out every couple of months (usually having something to do with the god-awful human which is Zach Braff), but the culprit this time is Matthew Weiner’s ‘Are You Here’. There’s no question mark at the end, apparently. If you feel a sense of familiarity with the name Matthew Weiner, it’s because he was the showrunner of the late great ‘Mad Men’, and ‘Are You Here’ is his first directorial debut into the world of feature films. ‘Are You Here’ stars Owen Wilson as generic-white-male, Steve, and Zach Galifianakis as Ben, Steve’s mentally ill best friend. Other cast members include the flawless Amy Poehler as Ben’s sister, Terry, and Laura Ramsey as Angela – Ben and Terry’s young and beautiful Stepmother. Not of the wicked variety, I might add. The narrative is simple enough; Ben and Steve are best friends, Ben’s father dies, Ben’s already fraught mental health takes a turn for the worse, Terry and Ben fight over their father’s estate, Steve spends a lot of time feeling sorry himself, both Ben and Steve sleep with Angela (yes, that is Ben’s stepmother) and in the end everyone ends up happy. There’s even a kiss in the rain.
‘Are You Here’ had a lot of potential to be an interesting and sentimental piece of film-making. It could have explored how we deal with grief, what happens to a family in times of crisis and it could have paved the way for a serious conversation about mental health. Unfortunately, it does none of these things. Whilst watching the film, it is abundantly clear that this is Weiner’s first feature, and whilst the slow, brooding narrative works in a 13 episode season like ‘Mad Men’, that style of storytelling does absolutely nothing here. Weiner could afford to move slowly with ‘Mad Men’, and he took that liberty plenty of times. However, films are a different medium, and if after an hour of watching a film there’s still no clue as to where we are going – I think it’s time to switch off.
First things first, ‘Are You Here’ is an incredibly generic film. It brings nothing new to the table, or anything remotely interesting to think about. Even the title is monumentally forgettable (I’m not sure if The Guardian fell prey to that instant forgettable-ness or whether it has a different title in the U.K., and if so why?). However, I think the film is worth a review, simply because films like this occur all the time and there’s no point pretending they don’t exist.
There are numerous issues with ‘Are You Here’. Fundamentally however, the film just doesn’t work. Not only was there no sense of a real story, it was also far too concerned with Owen Wilson’s character (Steve). By far the most interesting aspect of ‘Are You Here’ is Ben’s relationship with his sister Terry, and how the two of them are forced to negotiate his mental illness with the large sum of money and land their father has left almost solely to him. The narrative of ‘Are You Here’ is about Ben losing his father, but for some reason his best friend Steve takes the spotlight. The vast majority of the film focuses on Steve and how he deals with Ben’s mental illness and how Steve is an alcoholic, a pervert and generally a very selfish person. The film doesn’t see it this way though. Steve is kind – for trying to help his ‘crazy friend’ and Steve is troubled, due to his drink and women problems. Steve is a trope and a boring, overused one at that. It is never clear whether Steve is out for himself or genuinely cares about Ben, and it is never clear whether Steve is happy living a self destructive lifestyle – but I suppose what is more important than those two things, is that it’s incredibly boring either way. Headache inducingly boring. It’s also quite confusing. There is a really interesting story going on here – but it’s being played out at the edge of the frame, and some self pitying white man is taking up most of the shot so we can’t actually engage with it. Unless Owen Wilson chasing a chicken around for ten minutes was supposed to be verging on existentialism (which I am sure some exec producer believed it actually was), I’m not buying any of it.
‘Are You Here’ is generic, and ultimately just a bad film. From what looks like a very promising cast and crew, it is a monumental disappointment. Avoid if you can.