Why Can’t TV’s Beloved “Difficult Men” Make Good Movies?

Considering the kind of dancing in the streets that greets every new season of Mad Men (particularly now that we’re in the home stretch), you’d think Are You Here, the feature filmmaking debut of Mad Men creator/mastermind Matthew Weiner, would be accompanied by a bit more fanfare. But it’s getting a muted, multi-platform, limited release today, after a Toronto Film Festival premiere under a different title, to decidedly mixed reviews. If you see the film — and this is not much of an endorsement to do so — it’s easy to see why; Are You Here is a bit of a mess. But there’s an odd and interesting trend at work here, where genuinely gifted television creators, with distinctive voices and unique styles, try their hand at filmmaking and whiff that transition completely.

The most recent example is Weiner’s old Sopranos boss David Chase, whose 2012 Jersey rock drama Not Fade Away was moody, evocative, ambitious, and, to its ultimate detriment, just all over the goddamn place. Larry David tried to translate his Seinfeld sensibility to the big screen in 1998’s Sour Grapes; the result was a legendary flop, recipient of a rare “zero star” review by Roger Ebert, who wrote, “I can’t easily remember a film I’ve enjoyed less.” Sitcom legend James Burrows’ single feature directorial effort, 1982’s cop/gay-panic comedy Partners, was justly ignored upon release and has since been forgotten. And the trend goes the other way too; Louis C.K.’s pre-Louie films, Tomorrow Night and Pootie Tang, don’t even hint at the quality of what he would accomplish on television, while the feature films Vince Gilligan wrote between The X-Files and Breaking Bad (Home Fries and Hancock) were, to put it mildly, mixed bags. One of the few TV powerhouses to successfully traverse the divide is James L. Brooks, though critics have often made hay of the sitcom-ish bent of his works (particularly his later, not-very-good stuff).

Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson, and Amy Poehler in "Are You Here"

Weiner is best known for Mad Men, of course, but his CV also includes writing gigs on sitcoms like The Naked Truth, Baby Blues, and (ugh) Becker. And what is oddest about Are You Here is how it seems less the work of the man who created Don Draper than the man who wrote curmudgeonly wisecracks for Dr. John Becker. The story finds childhood friends Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis returning to their hometown after the death of Galifianakis’s father, and Weiner seems bent on telling a bittersweet story of aging adolescents finally growing up. But he’s got Wilson and Galifianakis basically working within their familiar comic personae, and there are moments throughout the film where they engage in almost embarrassingly broad slapstick.

To be sure, there are some laughs — it’s just that the timing is so oddly sprung. We’re supposed to care about the familial dysfunction between siblings Galifianakis and Amy Poehler (wasted in another supporting film role that totally suppresses her natural warmth and likability), but their conflict is given barely more time than a running subplot about Wilson’s attempts to peep on his hot, perpetually disrobing neighbor. There are moments of truth sprinkled here and there, but Weiner will follow them with a scene (I’m not making this up) of Wilson chasing around a chicken for dinner. For a stretch in the middle, the filmmaker almost seems to be aping Punch Drunk Love — starting with the broad, prototypical Galifianakis character (as P.T. Anderson did with Sandler), but taking his mental health and instability seriously, within a real-world setting, which is an idea with potential. Yet the picture keeps veering unsteadily off-course.

Ultimately, it’s a question of tone. Weiner seems to have his sights on some kind of half-comic, half-tragic approach, but it keeps slipping through his fingers, so the arch comic and sorta-serious stuff co-exist uneasily (and let’s not even discuss the sappy-happy kissing-in-the-rain conclusion). I can’t quite pinpoint exactly where the film went off the rails — maybe it was in the casting of the three comic heavyweights — but it’s easy to see how Weiner might’ve presumed he could juggle so many different styles so easily, since he does so, week after week, on Mad Men.

Still image from "Not Fade Away"

But that’s the trouble with films like Are You Here and Not Fade Away: in spite of the “Is TV Better Than Film?” pieces that crop up a few times a year, these two media aren’t entirely compatible. Yes, they both involve telling stories with actors and visuals and dialogue, but compare Are You Here with any episode of Mad Men, and you see the problem: there’s just not enough time to do the kind of thing these guys are used to to doing. Even at (a frankly rather bloated) 112 minutes, Weiner can’t establish anything resembling the particular, cynical tone and off-kilter style we’ve grown accustomed to on his television show. Not Fade Away, which also ran 112 minutes (boy, Weiner was really following Chase’s lead on this stuff), simply couldn’t contain the kind of sprawling narratives and bulky ensemble that Chase was used to having 12 hours a year to explore. (Larry David’s Clear History didn’t have to do any of that building, since it ran on HBO and played like a further fictionalized extension of Curb Your Enthusiasm.)

But if we can agree on the general difficulty of making the move from TV to feature filmmaking, one question remains: why should they want to? Nothing that we know about either man from the extensive reporting on them (particularly the riveting book Difficult Men) indicates that they are lacking in ego, and both certainly seem aware of the quality of their television work. But they are also old enough (Chase more than Weiner, but still) to have spent most of their lives in an entertainment industry that views television as second-class status, where TV is the minor leagues and movies are The Show. What they don’t seem to have noticed is that — due, in a great part, to their own efforts — that’s no longer the case. When an Oscar winner like Steven Soderbergh walks away from a film industry where he can no longer create satisfying work and helms a cable series about a troubled antihero, the likes of Chase and Weiner have won. They don’t have to go to the mountain; the mountain has come to them.

Are You Here is out today in limited release and on demand.