This Never Happened

The first film by the creator of Mad Men plummets to Earth.

Are You Here
In Are You Here, Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson) is perpetually broke because he spends all his money on weed and his best friend, Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis).

Photo courtesy Millenium Entertainment

There was nearly a one-year hiatus between the fifth and sixth seasons of Mad Men, and while audiences pined for Don Draper, creator Matthew Weiner directed a film he had been trying to get made for years, based on a screenplay he had written back when he worked in the writers’ room of The Sopranos. The film, Are You Here, an ostensible comedy about the emotional breakthroughs of a pair of developmentally arrested stoner best friends, arrives in theaters Friday. Weiner would probably prefer it be viewed on terms other than, “this is a movie from the man who makes Man Men,” but that is a tall order: That frame of reference is just about the only intriguing thing about it.

Owen Wilson stars in Are You Here as Steve Dallas (not this Steve Dallas, but not not him either), a caddish weatherman who begins the film in full Don Draper mode. “I wake up happy. I’m that guy,” he immodestly shrugs as he woos a montage’s worth of women with an identical speech about not being beholden to anyone for anything. Doing what other people want you to do, proclaims Steve, is a form of “prostitution”—even as his credit cards are being rejected by an actual prostitute. Steve makes a good living, but is perpetually broke because he spends all his money on weed and his best friend, Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis). He’s a selfish guy—one of the movie’s only funny lines comes when Steve says, “I should be the last person to say this, but what about me?”—except when it comes to his bestie.

Ben is an unmedicated, paranoid, extremely unstable man given a kind of teddy-bear gloss, as ever, by Galifianakis.  Ben lives in squalor and frenzy, possibly working on a book that no one will, or likely even could, ever read. He and Steve have known each other since childhood, and are co-dependently devoted to each other and the marijuana with which they self-medicate. (Weiner does bring his love of the very blunt sound cue over from Mad Men: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 lift-off” goes mission control as the fellas blaze up, close-up on the embers.)

The plot gets going when Ben’s father dies. Steve and Ben head to the funeral, where Ben’s uptight sister Terri (Amy Poehler) is expecting to inherit their father’s business and farm. Their father’s beautiful, kindhearted widow, Angela (Laura Ramsey), attends the funeral in a see-through white dress; a much, much younger woman, she is—really—not a gold digger. Still living at the farm, she’s grieving and figuring out her next move; alas, it winds up being playing, days after her husband’s death, the movie’s romantic lead.

Despite Terri’s expectations, it is Ben who inherits the bulk of their father’s estate, which he wants to use for all sorts of fanciful, unhinged back-to-nature schemes. The windfall precipitates a crisis for both Ben, who needs to start taking his meds, and Steve, a charming but emotionally shutdown addict-narcissist, who has avoided his own very real problems because they weren’t as obvious as Ben’s.

From a very narrow, flattering angle Are You There is a credit to the range of Weiner’s interests: It is about as far from Mad Men in scope, style, tone, and theme as the man who created that series could be expected to get. Such are the disparities that it’s difficult to tell Are You Here comes from the man who created Mad Men at all: Are You Here is a wan, ineffectual, not at all convincing character piece. The guy who gave us Roger Sterling’s indelible acid trips can’t even make Owen Wilson seem particularly high, which is saying something given that seeming high is the good joke embedded in Owen Wilson’s entire performing style.

Mad Men is a super-stylized, not particularly realist piece of work—that’s why it can feel as mannered as theater. Are You Here strives for a more grounded tone, but, what it gains in realism, it gives away in psychological acuity and emotional oomph. The female characters are all but beside the point. Poehler’s Terri is sporadically shrewish and swiftly backseated in a part that never gives her a laugh. (The movie may be billed as a comedy, but Mad Men, a high drama, is way funnier.) Angela is a hottie earth mother who married a man many times her age, but not, the movie insists, for creepy purposes. But she ultimately exists only as a sexual foil, drawn willy-nilly first to Steve and then to Ben, even though the first is a womanizing pothead, and the other her wildly unstable step-son. Are You Here’s view of its female characters can best be summed up in its leering, pay-cable use of nudity: Three extremely lithe women are seen in various states of their altogether; men appear with shirts, at most, unbuttoned.

Steve and Ben are drawn in more detail, but not to fullness. Are You Here, like Mad Men, is concerned with loneliness, and whether it is possible to be known to other people as your true self. On Mad Men, these questions have become extremely resonant because the audience knows intimately the selves that Don Draper and Peggy Olson and all the rest have worked so hard to camouflage. But while Are You Here suggests that Ben and Steve’s friendship is so profound and sweet because they (like Don and Peggy) are only really known and accepted by one another, they are never quite known to us. That’s in part because their characters don’t make any sense.

Ben gets a diagnosis of bipolarity, but his behavior is way more far-out than that, involving not so much highs and lows as wild delusions and an inability to read social cues. Ben fetishizes the Amish and their connection to the land—his father’s property is in Amish country—in a way that goes almost unquestioned by the film and would be wildly uncomfortable and essentializing if applied to almost any other group of people. Ben refuses to take meds for all the clichéd reasons people refuse to take meds in the movies, because it would dull his clarity—but he doesn’t seem to have any.

We are told by Angela and Ben that Steve is covering up a huge amount of emotional damage, but he seems more callow than anything. The movie presents him as a man who, fortysomething and oversexed, would make a concerted effort—like, call the handyman to come chop down a tree—to see the woman across the street naked. It’s when Steve realizes that he should not have cut down the tree to see some tatas that he has his breakthrough, a petty instigator of alleged epiphany if there ever was one.

There is a moment in the movie when Steve beheads a chicken—it’s for dinner—and, decapitated, the chicken runs off into the yard. It is easy to imagine such a moment—macabre, sudden, violent—being unforgettable on Mad Men. But in the casual, tonally erratic Are You Here it doesn’t land. It’s just another antic, odd moment in a movie that doesn’t give its scenes much weight at all. Mad Men has always been, among other things, about the pride a talented person should feel about outstanding work. As Are you Here winds down, with a kiss in the rain no less, it starts to seem like a testament to just how hard it actually is to make something that outstanding.