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TORONTO - Matthew Weiner has proven himself to be an incredible writer and director on the small screen. He's earned critical acclaim and numerous awards for his landmark series "Mad Men." On Saturday afternoon, Weiner unveiled his screenwriting and feature directorial debut at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with the dramedy "You Are Here." It was not his finest two hours.
"You Are Here" is primarily about the relationship between two longtime best friends, Steve and Ben, played by Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis respectively. Steve is barely keeping his job as an Annapolis TV weather man and Ben is a failed writer appearing to scrape by enough to sustain both of their pot smoking habits. Ben is also suffering from some bi-polar or schizophrenic tendencies and we soon discover that Steve is shadowing him enough to make sure he doesn't do anything too crazy or dangerous. When Ben learns his father has passed away, he convinces Steve to return to their childhood hometown in rural Pennsylvania to attend the burial.
The funeral introduces Ben's straight arrow sister Terry (Amy Poehler) and his 25-year-old stepmother Angela (Laura Ramsey). You don't even need Terry to utter a line to know she dislikes Angela and has serious contempt for her long absent brother (don't worry, she verbalizes both anyway). The reading of the will surprises all parties as Ben receives the lucrative family grocery store, farm and family home. Terry is furious, believing it's all somehow a plot of Angela's. Meanwhile, Angela just wants to leave town and move on with her life. The pressures of his new inheritance make Ben more mentally unstable than usual and Steve's only concern is figuring out how to hit on a widower who is still suffering from the loss of her husband. And did we mention there's physical comedy too?
Beyond an overstuffed screenplay, Weiner's biggest mistake is an attempt to fashion a James L. Brooks-esque dramedy out of the proceedings. It should be noted that even Brooks only succeeded with his own formula a few times (this critic would argue only twice) and it's a specific tone that's incredibly difficult to duplicate. "You Are Here" switches from slapstick comedy to serious family drama to romantic comedy to a mental health awareness drama over and over and over again. Even Brooks would have dropped at least two out of the four categories. Granted, Weiner directs a few individual scenes that are at least interesting to watch, but they all seem like they are cut from different films. Moreover, when he falls flat, he really falls flat. There are too many moments when a scene intended to evoke laughs played to complete silence during the picture's premiere. Considering the improvisational talents involved in the production that's somewhat shocking.
Overall, the actors provide Weiner little assistance in turning all the parts into a cohesive whole. And, frankly, the actual casting seems a bit strange across the board. Did Weiner bring Poehler in to play Terry because he thought she'd bring some comic levity to the role? Terry is basically a "straight" character; why waste Poehler's talents here? On the other hand, Ben is simply old hat to Galifianakis. He's played slightly different versions of this character in "The Hangover" series and "Due Date." Wilson is also in familiar territory playing a loser getting by on his quick wit and charm. That's a role he could play in his sleep. The relatively unknown Ramsey is OK, but casting her in such a pivotal role is head-scratching. Clearly Wilson, Galifianakis and Poehler wanted the chance to work with the talented "Mad Men" creator no matter what. Taking that into account, Weiner couldn't find a better actress than Ramsey to play what is effectively Steve's love interest and the crux of the movie's third act? Yes, the film is so disjointed and terribly paced these are questions you start to ask yourself while actually watching the picture.
Weiner also does himself no favors in making sure the production appears as much like a studio film as possible. From Chris Maley's glossy camera work to David Carbonara's forgettable score you'd think you were watching a stock romantic comedy from the past 20 years. You'd hardly believe these three men are integral parts of the stylish and sophisticated "Mad Men."
Even with Wilson, Galifianakis and Poehler in the fold, the commercial prospects for "You Are Here" are weak. It will likely earn a token limited release before heading to VOD and cable. Weiner is clearly a creative force, but "You Are Here" proves he might need another strong voice in the room to get it right on the big screen.