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When TV's Greatest Showrunners Make Mediocre Movies

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?

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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.

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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.

The ethereality of Not Fade Away is especially poignant because David Chase has said he's always wanted to be a filmmaker. "In my view, I got sidetracked by TV," he told Salon. "I basically want to stay in movies. This is where I was meant to be." Chase is the lifelong television producer who never seemed to like television all that much, even as he reworked what it could be like with his landmark HBO series. If you were to take to heart Chase's much-touted preference for the movies, a passion Douglas picks up himself as his chances at a music career fall apart, then Not Fade Away should be the project he's always wanted to make.

But it's such a fleeting thing, a mood piece marked by nicely palpable period details about life at the edges of the counterculture explosion — the suburbs! — and some amusing bits about being in an amateur band and the grandiose aspirations that can come with it. "I've been the main music figure of this town since high school — I feel like I owe it to the people to remain loyal to our roots," Douglas' temperamental bandmate Gene (Jack Huston), who in an earlier scene almost blew a gig by accidentally swallowing a joint, says with seriousness and a complete lack of self-awareness. It's a believable doodle about not making it that never manages the purgatorial poetry of the Coens' similarly themed Inside Llewyn Davis.

Not Fade Away feels, ironically, episodic, bouncing haphazardly through the months and years like the eternal introduction to an event that never arrives, then ending abruptly. "What kind of movie is this? Nothing happens," Douglas complains when watching Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up with his girlfriend Grace (Bella Heathcote), a self-conscious wink Not Fade Away never really earns when it's so defined by nothingness itself. The Sopranos took six seasons to drive in its message that people don't change, that therapy and a brush with death wouldn't make Tony a better or even, really, a different man, creating a complex portrait of the New Jersey mobster, his family, and cohorts before famously cutting us off from the story without closure ("the movie never ends / it goes on and on and on and on"). Not Fade Away essentially attempts to do the same thing, but without anywhere near the amount of time. When Douglas wanders off at the end, it feels inconsequential — the window we had on his life closing, with a shrug.

Not Fade Away is an interesting mess, but Are You Here is a genuine one. That it's written and directed by Weiner only makes it more confounding — why this story, told this way? While the movie's one Weiner's been working on since his Sopranos days, it features Wilson and Galifianakis in variations on types they've played multiple times before — the slacker ladies' man and the unstable goofball, two pot-smoking childhood friends still evading adulthood. For Steve Dallas (Wilson), an Annapolis weatherman unlikely and uninterested in making it to a larger market, this is a choice, while Ben Baker (Galifianakis) comes across as someone who for mental health reasons couldn't get his life in better order if he wanted to. Ben's father dies, and he and Steve head to Pennsylvania to find that Ben's been left a sizable inheritance.

Weiner created a fascinating grown-up in Mad Men's Don Draper, a protagonist whose perpetual dissatisfactions were due to emotional wounds and restlessness rather than perpetual boyishness. But Steve's a shockingly standard man child, glomming off his pal, skating in just under the wire at work, and making lazy passes at every attractive woman who passes by. And the two major female characters are terrible and unformed in a way that feels particularly surprising given the wonderfully wrought women Weiner has brought to the small screen (Peggy! Joan! Betty! Megan!). Laura Ramsey plays Angela, Ben's hippie-ish widowed young mother-in-law, who thanklessly serves as both mother figure and lover for the arrested development duo, while not even Amy Poehler can make Ben's unhappy, embittered sister any less harsh.

In interviews, Weiner compared Are You Here to Five Easy Pieces, seeing them both as movies "about a man coming to terms with the same issues." It's almost impossible to imagine a viewer coming up with the same comparison him- or herself — the movie feels more likely to be looked at as a loose, unfunny cousin to The Wedding Crashers. If Not Fade Away unsuccessfully applied to the big screen ideas Chase used so well on the small one, Are You Here ditches just about everything Weiner does so excellently in Mad Men in favor of a dismayingly phony delayed coming of age story and an unearned romance culminating in kisses in the rain.

Neither of these movies conveys the depth of talent their writer-directors have shown on television — and while that doesn't undermine their earlier work in any way, it does demonstrate that it's unfair to look at TV and film as too similar, even as television rivals cinema in what it's capable of in terms of visuals and thematic heft. The showrunner has been built up as television's equivalent of an auteur, but running a series almost always involves channeling a vision through collaboration with other writers and directors in a way that a movie does not, while movies require a focus that neither Chase nor Weiner seems to have managed, at least this time around. It seems like everyone has a new appreciation for serialized storytelling in our age of the prestige drama, but Not Fade Away and Are You Here are reminders that films have their own, different demands, and that they're not always easily met.

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