Are You Here starts off as a buddy-buddy slacker comedy, but it soon devolves into a no-fun story about finding responsibility and self worth. Writer-director Matthew Weiner (of Mad Men fame) prefers teaching life lessons rather than providing laughs.
Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson) is an Annapolis weatherman who spends most of his free time trying to charm women into bed and getting high with his best friend Ben (Zach Galifianakis). Ben is a manic man, afraid of the world, but also on a personal crusade to save it.
When Ben’s dad dies, the guys travel to Lancaster, PA, where Ben’s father owned a farm worth millions. Ben’s shrewish sister Terri (Amy Poehler) is hoping to take control of the estate, or at least wrestle it away from her young stepmother, Angelina (Laura Ramsey).
Are You Here consists mainly of the effect Ben’s father’s will has on the characters. After Ben inherits $2.5 million, Terri takes Ben to court to prove her wacky brother is of sound mind. This sets off a chain of reactions that lead the characters on paths to clarity.
While these passages include Ben taking medication to smooth out his erratic behavior, there are other ripples, such as Angelina prompting Steve to go kill a chicken for dinner. The experience, which is initially comic, ultimately transforms him.
However, Are You Here features too many dumb unfunny moments that are meant to show how badly Ben and Steve need to be reinvented. When Ben insists on buying a supply of crawfish (to save them) on the way to his father’s funeral, the crustaceans go bad in Steve’s trunk. Likewise, a dumb subplot features the over-aged adolescent Steve asking to have a tree cut down so he can spy on the nearly naked woman across the way. The purpose of these episodes is to illustrate that when the characters get what they want, they no longer want it. It is a familiar message, and not especially well conveyed.
One of the weakest elements in Are You Here is the love triangle that develops between Steve, Ben, and Angelina. The situation certainly helps each character figure out how to love better, but the romances feel contrived in Steve’s case and implausible in Ben’s.
The film’s sexism is also a bit grating. When Steve’s TV station manager makes several inappropriate and unfunny comments about a less attractive meteorologist, it suggests that Mr. Weiner was still in his Mad Men era mindset.
The performances are as uneven as the script. Wilson slides by on his goofball charm, but he never makes Steve’s maturation credible. Galifianakis injects his expected zaniness into his manic moments, and there is an obligatory episode involving his comic nudity, but the comedian is best showing his dramatic side. This is less true with the miscast Poehler, who struggles with her underwritten role as Terri. Her character has a storyline about not having children, but it is unclear if Terri actually wants them. Poehler can’t communicate what isn’t there. As Angelina, Laura Ramsey is lovely—Steve repeatedly tells her this—but underused.
Despite its many flaws, something poignant does emerge by the end of Are You Here. Alas, the most remarkable transformation happens off-screen: Ben shaves his unruly beard.
Are You Here opens in Philly area theaters today.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and film critic. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming book, Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Follow him on twitter @garymkramer.