Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Owen Wilson/Zach Galifianakis/ARE YOU HERE: Matthew Weiner's first film is a sneaky winner

I don't know much about Matthew Weiner, pictured below, but I do know that his Mad Men is hands-down the best American television series I have ever seen. This of course had me a little worried about his debut as a filmmaker: So much to live up to, after all. I am happy to report that his entry into movie-making, ARE YOU HERE, which he wrote and directed, is a lovely piece of work: fresh, funny, moving and real. You can think of it in a number of different ways, one of these being a modern-day screwball comedy (with pot standing in for alcohol). It is also a kind of back-and-forth road trip (for the automobile and the soul). Best of all, it a movie in which characters actually learn and grow and change. Believably.

If Mr. Weiner does pack a lot into his just-under-two-hour film, and then ties things up rather nicely, this will go counter to expectations, since Mad Men ties nothing up. Everything simply keeps expanding outward while its characters go with the flow and often seem to have learned very little (we do, however). But that is one of the wonders of what a great TV series can offer. A two-hour film is a different kettle of fish, from which audiences demand both more and less. And Weiner gives it to them. If you pay attention, you'll come out of Are You Here refreshed and feeling good. But you'll also have had to wrestle with certain notions: that being an "outsider" (the character played  by Zach Galifianakis) has as many bad as good points, that anti-depressant drugs can be useful, that the lifestyle of a successful "player" (Owen Wilson's character), along with the easy money and sex, is so much fun that you might not want to give it up, and finally that compromise can actually result in something better than what recently preceded it.

From what we see on Mad Men and now in this film, I would guess that Weiner has a wonderfully all-embracing belief system that is able to take in opposing ideas easily and thoughtfully, play with them a bit, then send them snapping back at us. He has given us a story of two old friends, Steve (Wilson, above, left) and Ben (Galifianakis, above, right), enablers both, who care for each other in their own special way. When death and an inheritance take the men back to their childhood town, a lot begins to happen.  (Weiner's take on friendship is a particularly succulent one.)

This brings Ben's uptight and angry sister (Amy Poehler, above, right) into the mix, as well as Ben's father's widow (Laura Ramsey, below), a young woman who leavens the movie with some real surprise. The script is peppered with smart and often funny one-liners -- "Honestly, I don't know why the farmer and the cowhand can't be friends," will have some of us Oklahoma! fans chuckling -- while other bits of dialog ("Just to be clear: If I'm sober, you're interested?") are sure to bring us, as well as certain characters, up short.

Are You Here offers so much about the way we live now-- from the real estate ladies' seminar to the need for natural foods as well as for major supermarkets -- that both the fun and the substance of the film are in constant array.

And that cast! Wilson has rarely been better. He brings a complicated character into full bloom (his chicken scene, above, is something else), while Galifiianakis moves from crazy delight to a deepened, richer (literally and symbolically) man who can at last appreciate the need for behavior-adjusting drugs.

Poehler is harsh, but she never allows the character's humanity to entirely depart, and Ramsey makes what could be a too-good-to-be-true woman into a steely but fragile young lady trying her best to live up to her own high standards.

I suspect that some of my compatriots will misinterpret this movie as a "failed comedy" or some sort of "feel-good rom-com." It's much more than that. Give it a shot -- and find yourself in Matthew Weiner's complicated and very interesting universe.

Are You Here -- from Millennium Entertainment and running 113 minutes -- opens theatrically this Friday, August 22. In New York City, catch it at the AMC Empire 25; in L.A. at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas or the Laemmle Noho 7. To see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters, click here and then click on TICKETS at the top of the screen.

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