Crazily uneven as it is, Matthew Weiner’s comic drama Are You Here should be seen on account of being … Matthew Weiner’s. Mad Men is among TV’s supreme dramatic achievements, and anything that illuminates its creator’s worldview — especially as we prepare for the final episodes — is helpful in putting the show in perspective. And the movie is very illuminating. It’s practically an essay on the counterculture, in how being an unruly outsider can liberate us from the meaninglessness of the capitalist grind — and yet also be a stage for self-destruction. It’s funny, clunky, earnest, and barely credible, but it’s all of a piece.
Owen Wilson is the Don Draper character, Steve Dallas, who also has a heavy dose of Bill Murray. He’s an oversexed, wiseacre pothead weatherman in a small market (Annapolis), and he’s clearly on a road that leads nowhere. Early on, another character tells him he’s using drugs and sex to keep from feeling anything, from being in the moment (hence the title). He’s another of God’s Loneliest Men. His childhood buddy and near-dependent Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis) is almost his opposite. Ben is a bearded malcontent who rails in hippie-dippy fashion against capitalism while working on a book that will never be completed. He’s also obviously bipolar, at times delusional. You might sympathize with his lefty declarations (or not), but this is not a design for living.
Are You Here charts the ways in which these child-men are forced to grow up, and, for a while (when they’re being child-men), it’s amusing. Weiner seems to be writing down to the medium — he doesn’t have a season or two to bring out the characters’ backstories, so he has to use shorthand to spell things out — but he knows how to give a scene a comic hum. Steve’s stoned effusions while forecasting the weather are a hoot, in part because Wilson is so expert at making his characters spacey and sharp simultaneously. (Gearing up for the broadcast, Steve’s producer screams, “This is a newsroom! Can I get people walking back and forth please?”) Galifianakis’s rants are more tiresome, but it’s quickly clear that his outlandish behavior isn’t meant to be goofy. They’re meant to suggest that — at least without his meds — he’s certifiable.
The plot kicks in when Ben’s father dies and the duo drive to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Amish Country), for the funeral and reading of the will. The father’s second wife turns out to be a very young, very pretty free spirit named Angela (Laura Ramsey), and despite being trotted out as a sexpot in a see-through Earth Mother dress, she is, indeed, an angel. How you take Angela will determine how you take the film, and most people won’t buy her for a second. The corpse of her husband is barely cold before Steve is putting the moves on her, and her mix of flirtatiousness and rectitude (not to mention hotness) seems too good to be true. And Ramsey doesn’t have much energy, comic or otherwise. She’s a male projection.
Fortunately, Amy Poehler is around as Ben’s bitchy (there is no other adjective) sister, Terri, and the part is in her wheelhouse. There are also nice performances by Edward Herrmann as the shrink who seems to equate countercultural thinking with lunacy and Peter Bogdanovich — underplaying to perfection — as the judge who must determine if Ben is compos mentis enough to inherit the bulk of his father’s money. Wilson has a good slapstick scene in which he has to chase and decapitate a chicken to prove to Angela that he can face up to the brutal reality of working on a farm. It is, in the end, quite brutal, which gives it a sting.
Steve’s trajectory is predictable; it’s Ben’s that gives Are You Here its ultimate sobriety. For Weiner, psychiatric meds keep Ben out of the dangerously delusional zone but make him a square fellow, the sort who cleans up and moves into a tidy condo and lets go of everything that made him what he was (or seemed to be). I give kudos to Weiner for not knowing quite how to frame this, but I think he leans to the side that it’s a good thing. The polarities in Mad Men are stark but not that stark and nowhere near so conventional. Weiner might be the ultimate proof of what has happened vis-à-vis movies and television. He might be an artist whose insights are banal when the dramatic question is bluntly called, but is capable of capturing the true, irreducible complexity of existence in the long form. The question hangs disturbingly: Is television now the chief forum for that complexity?