The main thing I look for in a movie is “not the same old thing”. So many movies are retreads into comfortable viewing. If we’ve seen it a million times, we must like it, right? Why fix it if it isn’t broke? Unfortunately, most movies are the same old thing because of laziness and apathy. Hollywood doesn’t really welcome new ideas. Are You Here is not “the same old thing”. Some people might not like something new, but I do. I like to be challenged by characters that grow right before your eyes and become people you never expected they’d be. Are You Here is basically a romantic comedy, which makes it even more unusual for it to have such challenging characters.
Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson) seems like a loser when we first meet him, with maxed-out credit cards and multiple dates. It turns out he’s not a loser, but we don’t know that until we see him visit a real loser who lives in a dilapidated mobile home in the middle of nowhere. The loser is Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis), who is his friend since childhood. They are comfortable, close and happy together as friends, indicating that they may not be that different. The difference is that Steve is so charming and good looking that nothing ever worries him, and everything comes easy. Ben worries about everything, and even though he nearly got his masters’ degree, he is severely dysfunctional. It should be noted that Steve is fairly shallow and Ben is extremely concerned about major issues, but it all evens out when they smoke pot together.
Steve is coasting through his job as the local weatherman in Annapolis when Ben shows up in complete meltdown mode. Ben’s father has died. Steve smooths things out and drives him to the funeral.
I don’t want to reveal too much more of the plot, because the pleasures of discovery are considerable.
Matthew Weiner wrote and directed the film and is also the creator of the Mad Men TV show. Are You Here is nothing like Mad Men, which might disappoint some people, but not me. I would have been disappointed if they were similar. The surprise of the film is that it wasn’t what I expected. If anything it is closer to the sensibilities of one of my favorite writer/directors, James L. Brooks. It seems to share similar concerns to two Brooks films, Broadcast News and How Do You Know. How Do You Know also starred Owen Wilson and is a highly underrated film. It also had characters lost in a turmoil of shifting emotions. It also had a fairly large budget for what seemed like a fairly modest story, but nonetheless, I found it enormously satisfying. It was challenging to see characters in such a constant flow of conflict and was not warmly received. I fear Are You Here will suffer a similar fate. Every character is full of life and sharply drawn. The cast also includes Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) as Ben’s sister and Jenna Fischer (The Office). Zach Galifianakis has been typecast as a delusional lunatic in films, and here he expands the typecasting until it breaks into a million pieces. It is clearly his best work as an actor. Laura Ramsey is a real find here as the romantic interest.
As I said, I don’t want to go to heavily into the plot, but part of what I can say is that Owen Wilson’s character here, like his character in How Do You Know, is one struggling to overcome the shallowness that his charming good looks has forced on him. His character always verges on being unlikable despite being someone who also floats through life on everyone’s goodwill.
This comedy probably earns the term “dramedy”, because it does focus on many dramatic situations, but the general tone is light and fun. The scene where Owen Wilson kills a chicken is worth the price of admission.
What the film offers is a fantasy for all of us about what it would be like if we were offered the opportunity to truly change our lives. I imagine almost everybody wonders what life is like on the other side of the fence. Are You Here is the other side of the fence.