If Matthew Weiner's Are You Here is good for anything, it's to illustrate how the themes and conflicts he has worked out with such depth and dexterity in all these seasons of Mad Men can go terribly amiss with the wrong actors, wrong backdrop, wrong tone, wrong time.
Instead of Don Draper with his serial infidelities and default-mode self-destruction, Weiner - in a script he wrote before Mad Men took flight, and shot two years ago - gives us Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson), a boozing, stoner TV weatherman for a local news station in Annapolis. Steve is glib, charming, and full of gnawing emptiness.
Steve is also the best buddy to Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis), a bipolar loser who scrawls feverish non sequiturs into spiral-bound notebooks in a bedroom furnished with Bob Marley posters and bongs. When his father dies, Ben and his sister (Amy Poehler) are left a farmhouse, a business, acres of rolling Amish countryside, and a hefty amount of cash. Most of it goes to Ben, even though he's certifiable, and Ben promises to share it with Steve - and do good stuff, like save the planet from ecological ruin.
The deceased Baker patriarch also left behind a young, beautiful widow. The stepmom to Ben and his sister, Angela (an intriguing Laura Ramsey) has a piercing smile and a closet full of hippieish sundresses. She's a classic Weiner woman: smart, sexy, conflicted - and all set for the men in her life to hurt her deeply, because they can, they must.
Are You Here lacks more than just the question mark that should go on its title. It lacks a point-of-view that makes sense, that feels central. Steve and Ben are two sides of the same persona, and neither is close to likable. Nor do Wilson and Galifianakis bring anything new to bear - they play it exactly how you'd expect them to.
Disappointment, depression, suicidal ideation - Are You Here is not exactly the laff riot you'd expect from its Wedding Crashers and Hangover leads. Maybe Weiner was going for some kind of '70s thing: a forlorn character study couched in a shaggy, screw-loose comedy.
Maybe. Who knows.
Directed by Matthew Weiner. With Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Laura Ramsey, Amy Poehler. Distributed by Millennium Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, nudity, profanity, drugs, adult themes).
Playing at: AMC Cherry Hill.EndText