Garden State

"It's real, sometimes it's fucking nuts... but it's all we have."

Garden State is going to be marketed as a vaguely populist “art film,” but only because it is too small-scale and uneventful to fight its way entirely into the mainstream; for insightful identity quests, I’ll take King Arthur, thank you very much. The Sundance hit with a great trailer turns out to be a simplistic and insincere character piece with elements of smug comedy. It is the screenwriting and directorial debut of Scrubs star Zach Braff, who also stars, and I am not sold on him in any capacity, though he is a charmer in person. There are a thousand scripts just like this making their rounds in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

I admit that I have a tendency to react negatively when “edgy” dark comedy is worked into otherwise earnest material. Here, the comic relief is so arbitrary as to make the entire affair frivolous. The vast majority of the jokes have no thematic bearing on the crux of the film, suggesting a cynical attempt to “lighten the mood” as an end in itself. I don’t think that inconsistent tone is inherently a cinematic vice, but Garden State is more incoherent than inconsistent; there’s nothing to bridge the gap between the masturbating dog and “exploring the infinite abyss.”

Speaking of “exploring the infinite abyss,” I don’t buy this movie’s notion of “finding oneself,” which is framed as allowing yourself to “feel.” The idea is that Andrew Largeman’s psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) medicated his son to such a degree that the latter became numb, as signified by the opening dream sequence wherein an impending plane crash leaves the rest of the passengers in a panic, but Andrew in a bored reverie.

That Braff resorted to a broadly symbolic fantasy vignette to open his film is evidence, for me, of the shallowness of his approach. There is no way for us to relate or connect; Largeman’s personal conflict is essentially meaningless, a screenwriter’s scattershot conception of what a life crisis must look and feel like. That Braff is able to so concretely literalize his character’s inner state suggests that there isn’t much to it. The similarly facile symbolism he later employs to bring Andrew out of his rut only exacerbates the artificiality — I’d rather see a character actually try working out his problems than climb up on a piece of construction equipment over a big hole in the ground and start screaming.

The supporting characters, presumably intended to lend the story “color,” are by turns unconvincing and unappealing. The wonderful Peter Sarsgaard is miscast as Andrew’s former best friend Mark — the actor is too manifestly intelligent for this role, and it took me a while to realize that the character wasn’t being ironic. Sam (Natalie Portman), the love interest and the plot’s main catalyst, is often portrayed as such a nitwit that we not only wonder what Andrew sees in her but wish he would stab her with a fork or push her off a cliff. One moment she is spouting clichéd nonsense about “making a completely original sound” and the next she is giving our hero sage advice on how to handle life’s hardships, in the process teaching him how to love. It doesn’t make very much sense, and once again smacks of careless screenwriting convenience.

The film looks great, and Mr. Braff seems to have had the benefit of every possible stroke of luck, from casting to soundtrack rights to distribution (both Miramax and Fox Searchlight jumped on the bandwagon). Maybe some adversity would have done him good; Garden State seems like the work of an awfully privileged beginner.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

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