“You Are Here” is Matthew Weiner’s contribution to the modern man-child genre: a study of toxic selfishness presented at comedy that isn’t nearly funny enough for a film starring Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis, and nowhere near as serious as Weiner’s celebrated TV work. What “Mad Men” fans itching to see Weiner’s stab at feature directing don’t realize is that he penned this script well before his hit show existed, and the two projects share almost no creative DNA. Technically, it’s no worse than the average studio comedy, though auds surely expect more from the man who demonstrated how serialized TV can surpass bigscreen pics.
Success has empowered Weiner to avoid the rejection (and likely helpful feedback) that a studio partner would have brought this unconventional second feature (after the all-but-forgotten 1996 indie “What Do You Do All Day”). His ability to draw such a biggish-name ensemble should ensure a modest domestic opening from a smaller distrib, as well as a reasonable international release, although those choices come at the expense of ideal casting, starting with Wilson, whose innate affability makes it impossible to dislike such a heel of a character for long.
Wilson plays Steve Dallas, an Annapolis, Md., weatherman whose job involves predicting the near future, but whose life is stuck chasing instant gratification in the present. Steve is one of those comfortably numb characters Cameron Crowe and other American screenwriters like so much: guys who’ve lost their passion and fallen into an effortless routine of womanizing, drugs and other vices designed to keep them from making meaningful connections to other people. Steve’s only real friend is a bipolar eccentric named Ben Baker (Galifianakis) who lives in a trailer and would probably pose a danger to others, if he weren’t such a hermit.
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On “Mad Men,” Weiner has seasons upon seasons over which to let the story unfold, but the movies aren’t so forgiving, so he invents a pretty weird one: Ben gets word that his father has died and enlists Steve to accompany him for the reading of the will — an occasion that will take place deep in the heart of Pennsylvania Amish country. There, Ben and his control-freak sister (Amy Poehler) learn that their father has bequeathed 100 acres of farmland and most of his fortune to his screwed-up son.
Though Steve stands to benefit from the arrangement, he’s far less interested in Ben’s inheritance than he is in calling dibs on his friend’s 25-year-old stepmother, Angela (Laura Ramsey), who attends the funeral in a half-transparent white dress. The constant objectification of female characters here won’t strike “Mad Men” fans as strange, though it’s far easier to get away with such behavior when it passes as period-appropriate commentary on 1960s gender roles, as opposed to when it becomes a running theme in a more contemporary story. There are only so many scenes of Ben paying hookers, shagging his co-worker and peeping on strangers before it’s clear that the misogyny isn’t “meta,” but woven into the fabric of Weiner’s storytelling.
What are audiences rooting for here exactly? For Steve to stop chasing casual flings and focus on the sexy young Amish widow right in front of him? Angela’s the only woman who seems to have an effect on Steve, pointing out that his pot smoking and other behavior serve as a barrier to genuine feeling. Meanwhile, the off-puttingly eccentric Amish setting symbolizes the greater connection that not just Steve, but modern society as a whole, have lost to their surroundings — taking for granted everything from gazing at the stars to appreciating that the chicken on his dinner plate was once a living thing.
Weiner describes “You Are Here” as the story of a guy who needs to get off drugs and another guy who probably needs to get on them, which is just one of several intriguing armchair-psychology ideas the movie raises without providing any real insight. Steve and Ben may be more complex than your typical movie characters, but they don’t feel any more authentic. In fact, they come across as composites of interesting (and occasionally contradictory) fictional behavior types whose actions are motivated primarily in the service of making audiences laugh — which might be enough, if the results were funnier.
One dead giveaway that the comedy isn’t working is the film’s score, which overcompensates throughout by attempting to bolster every second with bouncy energy. Clearly, Weiner isn’t attempting to match the more sophisticated dynamic that has worked for him on TV, although there are two scenes — one in which Poehler’s character longingly eavesdrops on the neighbors’ family dynamic and another at the very end, when audiences feel the profound separation between a grocery-store horsey ride and the real thing passing by in the rain — that suggest the full potential of Weiner’s poetic soul. Whenever he chooses to put that on the bigscreen, audiences are here.
Note: An earlier version of this review mistakenly referred to “You Are Here” as Matthew Weiner’s bigscreen directing debut.