People who go into ‘Are You Here’ expecting it to be the standard mindless comic fare common to most of its cast will find themselves disappointed, but such shallow disappointment belittles all the film is able to achieve. The Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) helmed film offers a complex yet comical look at some of the more unspoken and taboo struggles of modern life, drawing deep, and at times moving, performances from both Zach Galifianakis and Owen Wilson.
The film centers on Ben Baker (Zach Galifianakis), an off-the-grid recluse and small-time pot farmer, and Steve Dallas (Owen Wilson), a shallow, substance abusing TV weatherman. The two are childhood best friends that over the years have developed a co-dependent relationship and stagnant lifestyle. When Ben’s father dies, leaving the majority of his fortune to Ben, the two are forced to return to their hometown and confront what they have become.
Upon their arrival, the two begin to experience a multitude of life-changing incidents. Terri (Amy Pohler), Ben’s sister, thinks that her brother is wholly incompetent and too unstable to manage the family’s fortune, which she herself wants, and challenges his mental status, leading to a diagnosis of Bipolar disorder and a struggle against its societal ramifications. Meanwhile, Steve fawns after the scandalously young and free-spirited widow of Ben’s father (Laura Ramsey), who challenges him to confront his many vices and question what he wants out of life.
‘Are You Here’ is more than some banal comedy, though it certainly does have more than a few laugh out loud moments. It is a realistic and existential journey that explores some of the taboo questions floating beneath the surface of modern life through the lens of humor. Perhaps the most prevalent of these questions involve mental illness and the relationship of identity and medication. What is it like to live with a personality disorder? What does it mean to be normal by society’s standards? Is it worth giving up your entire personality and identity just to be normal? These are complex questions, and there are no easy answers, but the film asks them anyway. Some people will not like this, and will judge the film negatively, because it makes them uncomfortable to confront the subjectivity of their own identity and the unknowns of mental illness. The film itself does not attempt to provide concrete answers to its difficult questions, the characters do make their respective choices, but even after, the film spends a good amount of time critiquing them.
The film is not without its flaws. At times it does feel like it tried too hard to explicate emotions and existential experiences. Perhaps the biggest example of this comes from a neglected storyline involving Amy Poehler’s character trying to get pregnant. This line of plot is fairly prominent in the first half of the film, with at least one full scene dedicated to it, only to be thrown away by the end. It wasn’t out of place; it just lacked any real closure, making it feel unnecessary and burdensome.
There is a lot of room for interpretation by the end of the film. The characters do reach some level of closure, but it is not the standard happy movie ending most people expect. In fact, the ending credits come as a bit of a surprise, dropping at the end of an awkward and unfulfilling scene. This is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, it might have been disappointing if the film had ended any other way. It spent so much time building up a complex and realistic story that had it yielded to the stereotypic storybook ending it just wouldn’t have worked. This is a movie that makes you think. It doesn’t do all the work for you.
‘Are You Here’ is an elegant and multifaceted story about issues that hover just below the surface of modernity. It is much more artistic than its cast and simple plotline lead on. This will turn off some audiences, who will go in looking for a mindless comedy, but this is a shame because Matthew Weiner has made a good film that might need to seek out its audience.