Mad Men Lite: a review of “Are You Here” (2013)


Watching Matthew Weiner’s film “Are You Here” is a lot like watching his television shows “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos.”  Same snappy, insightful dialogue, same morally ambiguous characters, same metaphorically fraught images that linger after the credits roll.  His work is a meditation on the trajectory of affluent, comfortable, godless Americans, and on the doubts that arise after they get everything they thought they wanted. Where does the cowboy go after he rides off into the sunset?  Wiener articulates a question whose answer is an abyss.

Weiner’s ability to throw air quotes around the American project, to paint affluence as a curse, is both mesmerizing and unsettling.  He’s not the first to cover this ground, but he’s perfected the recipe and figured out how to mass produce it.  Weiner is the McDonald’s of American self-critique, and I don’t doubt that he is aware of the ironies inherent.

“Are You Here” covers the mid-life crisis of a friendship between Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson), a philandering alcoholic Annapolis weatherman, and Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis), a paranoid schizophrenic inhabiting a cloud of marijuana and his own delusions of grandeur.  After his estranged father dies, Ben inherits a substantial estate, but the will is contested by his childless, materialistic sister Terry (Amy Poehler).  Ben has promised a substantial sum to Steve, who has been keeping him relatively stable (and well-stocked with pot) for years, and plans to turn his father’s farm, set deep in the heart of Amish Lancaster County, into a nonprofit called the “Omega Society,” a “beacon to that Babylon out there,” devoted to spiritual enlightenment and going back to the land. Galifianakis’ portrayal of the would-be messiah provides some much-needed color to an otherwise uneventful script.

Weiner ultimately tosses the ball back to the audience, leaving the tough questions up to us.  Is Terry a grasping, frigid control freak bent on blocking Ben from the realization of his high-minded goals, or a concerned sister, pragmatically looking out for the continued financial stability of her self-destructive sibling? Is Steve a calculating manipulator concerned only for his piece of the action, or a true friend intent on seeing his oldest compatriot remain himself, in the face of pressures from both his sister and his young, widowed hippie-dippie stepmother?  Is Ben himself a genius, or a basket case? A good deal of the film’s poignancy derives from Ben’s eventual decision to (spoiler alert) go on medication, and whether his resulting lucidity and abandonment of manic spiritualism and vegetarianism constitutes a loss of self.

Steve has a memorable quote: “That’s the thing about friendship – it’s a lot rarer than love; there’s nothing in it for anybody.”  I’ll replicate below the haunting final image of the film.

Ben has ceded control of his father’s country grocery to his sister Terry, who has turned it into a Wal-Mart Style superstore (insuring her brother a comfortable income), and moved into a nondescript, upscale apartment complex, shaving his beard, eating salmon, and working out.  During a rainstorm, Ben finds himself trapped under the awning of a supermarket, and helps a boy onto a coin-operated horse, behind which he sees an Amish horse-and-buggy clomping through the rain.  The real horse trots away, and we are left with the steady grind of the horse-machine.  Roll credits.

There is a lot in “Are You Here.” It is well worth a watch.