(Matthew Weiner, USA, 2013)
While we've seen some accomplished dabbling by feature filmmakers in the world of TV, the opposite doesn't seem to hold. Weiner's feature debut isn't a disaster, but it teeters on the edge of disaster for much of its running time, and while it has some notable virtues, it's also exemplary of the stark differences that remain between the two mediums.
Weiner the writer, a giant of contemporary prestige television, is on display here, but his work as a director is sorely deficient. He knows how to sketch characters efficiently, to balance character and incident, and can write zingers - funny and poignant both - with the best of them. But despite these facilities, the film lumbers along, stiff and flat-footed.
It's an easy shot, and maybe a cheap one, to claim that this is the TV influence bleeding through, but I think it's basically accurate. Lacking the time that TV affords to create a richly textured world, the production design and cinematography of Are You Here seem hasty and undercooked. Everything is even and flat, as if to highlight the words and the actors - itself not a wise creative choice - but there, too, things go awry. Weiner seems unable to hit upon an appropriate comedic tone - how broad, how subtle, does he want to play this? By the middle of the film, as the drama emerges from the frothy comedy of earlier, things have started to coalesce, finally, but not enough to rescue the experience completely.
Best then to think of this film, formally at least, as an exercise. I would've preferred more audacity from the justly celebrated Weiner, but he does at least have a few things on his mind. The ideas are the core of the film, even if they don't flower into a living experience: the nature and limits of friendship, the search for authenticity among the many false promises of modern living, and the necessity of awareness in a world rife with distractions. Very often these ideas are presented blatantly, edging towards the homiletic, but Weiner is canny and skeptical enough to avoid the worst effects.
The cast is strong, but again, Weiner fumbles the potential of his material. His plodding approach forecloses on Galifianakis's wildness, and he doesn't have the visual panache to match the micro-gradations of Owen Wilson's comic genius. They're two very different types of performers, but thrown together in these scenes, they have trouble stretching out and letting loose.