The Sopranos ’ David Chase and Mad Men ‘s Matthew Weiner have both struggled in their recent big screen ventures. Maybe TV and film aren’t so similar after all?
Owen Wilson and Zach Galifianakis in Are You Here
The Sopranos and Mad Men aren’t just two of the greatest TV dramas ever made, they’re series that helped usher in the “Golden Age of Television” we’ve been enjoying (and of which may be approaching the end). These shows, one of which wrapped in 2007 and the other of which is closing out its final season next year, have told big stories, novelistic ones about family, class, and America, centered on a pair of complicated, highly imperfect anti-heroes. They’ve defined the “quality drama,” and their creators, David Chase and Matthew Weiner (who worked under Chase on Sopranos), have been major influences in getting TV taken seriously, in showing just how rich and layered a series can be.
So why have their movies been so disappointing?
Chase made his directorial debut toward the end of 2012 with Not Fade Away, a 1960s-set story about Douglas Damiano (John Magaro), a New Jersey teen and then twentysomething dreaming of rock stardom (you can stream it on Netflix). Are You Here, which is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, is technically Weiner’s second film — in 1996, pre-Sopranos, pre-Mad Men, he made What Do You Do All Day?, a black and white indie about a failed writer and compulsive gambler. Are You Here is a slicker affair about an irresponsible local weather man (Owen Wilson) and his bestie (Zach Galifianakis), who has a mental illness.
John Magaro and Bella Heathcote in Not Fade Away.
Barry Wetcher, Paramount Vantage/Indian Paintbrush Productions
They’re easy to have missed. Not Fade Away attracted mixed reviews and flopped at the box office, with not even the lure of Chase reuniting with his Sopranos star James Gandolfini (playing Douglas’ working class dad) proving enough to bring people to the theater. Are You Here, which was originally titled the less-VOD friendly (where alphabetical order counts) but more sensical You Are Here, got a worse critical reception and an even less-publicized release in a scattering of theaters and on VOD before arriving on home video this week.
Chase’s film is a nostalgic, semi-autobiographical story, while Weiner’s is a buddy dramedy, but in one way they’re similar — they’re both scattershot movies with bright moments and no center or easy summation. This seems at least somewhat deliberate for Not Fade Away, the better of the two films, a rock and roll ramble best described by what it isn’t — it’s not about stardom, or living happily ever after, or knowing where you’re headed. Are You Here is just a bewildering tonal jumble that’s sort of about friendship, sort of a romance, sort of a love letter to Pennsylvania Dutch country, sort of a man-child comedy, and an unconvincing character study.
They’re misfires from creators who’ve proven their gifts on the small screen — but they also feel like more than that. At a time when the line between movies and television has gotten more and more porous, when actors wander readily between the two and directors (True Detective's Cary Fukunaga, The Knick's Steven Soderbergh, Top of the Lake's Jane Campion) have been doing the same, Not Fade Away and Are You Here are reminders that TV and film are, still, different mediums with very different demands. Being a great filmmaker doesn’t guarantee you can throw together a great series, as the famous names among the discards of each pilot season suggest. And being a legendary showrunner clearly doesn’t mean you’ll turn out to be a natural at filmmaking.
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