Garden State

Zach Braff (USA, 2004)

I wasn’t all that hyped for this, to be honest. The second film I had seen in Film Four’s current ‘New Hollywood’ season, Garden State’s description as ‘written by, directed by and starring Zach Braff’ filled me with trepidation. It’s not that I don’t like him – he’s a perfectly fine comic performer in Scrubs (even if he’s not one of the funnier on the show, those being Neil Flynn, Donald Faison, John C. McGinley and Ken Jenkins in descending order) – but I didn’t like the idea of his having a vanity project. So: did it turn out to be a vanity project with little to redeem it, or could Braff prove me wrong by turning in a great film?

Go on, guess.

In case you were actually wondering (and are one of the four or so people in the western world who hadn’t see the film before me), it was pretty dismal. I remember someone I don’t like once remarking that Garden State epitomised what he hated about modern American popular culture. I, not liking him and all, decided that I would like it on principle. I was wrong. Garden State is a feeble, feeble example of film-making that I only endured for its entirety because I want to get into the swing of watching (and, unfortunately for you lot, writing on) more films.

I can’t discern what it was Braff was aiming for in making this film. I saw no real message, other than perhaps some vague stab at ‘live life to the full please’; there was pretty much nothing in the way of character development, save for ‘I was on anti-depressants and now I’m not’; the dialogue was weak; the cinematography was no better than adequate; perhaps most criminally, there was no conflict or drama in any meaningful way. The silver lining, I suppose, is that my DVD want list now has one less title on it.

In defence of the film, its somnolent delivery and dreary pace could be seen as allegory for modern life itself: the very lack of emotion or character at the heart of the film (a pretty damning omission, as this was ostensibly a character driven piece) a cinematic representation of life while tranquilised. While I am happy to give Braff the benefit of the doubt on this one, it’s not like such method makes for compelling film-making. One would have hoped that such a message of ‘live life instead of being medicated to the eyeballs!’ would be represented by a celebratory, exciting film, but apparently not.

Instead, viewers of the film were subjected to nearly two hours of the most anodyne indie pop music imaginable, the candy-coated dirge pausing only for witless dialogue and stumbling, bumbling narrative. The ubiquity of the music (fittingly empty of emotional or intellectual content) was so blatant that one character actually made another listen to The Shins on headphones; it was a ghastly experience. Fortunately, there was a scene sound-tracked by Nick Drake, which was a definite upturn in fortunes. In fact, that was quite easily the best scene of the film, as it was visually far less mediocre than the rest of Garden State’s cinematic mire; I should try riding with my feet up in an antique sidecar while ‘One Of These Things First’ plays.

Speaking of the headphone scene, I suppose now would be the best time to mention the second most prominent actor in the film: Natalie Portman. Watching the film, I was for some reason reminded of the trailers for Lost in Translation, another film everybody but me has seen (to incredibly divisive effect); I had missed it due to hitting the bars that night, and was ruing having to watch Portman instead of the pink bob bewigged Scarlett Johansson (as well as wishing I had stayed out longer on this night). I then remembered that Portman wears a pink bob in Closer, so I shall have to get that done in due course. That is not to say la Portman is not an attractive person, because she is. Sadly, she is also intensely annoying in this film, but I will gladly attribute that to Braff’s cack-handed writing non-ability.

Otherwise, the cast was a set of ghostly archetypes and stereotypes, never to pass into the realm of credibility. The story, such as it was, concerned jobbing actor Andrew Largeman (Braff) returning home to New Jersey to attend the funeral of his mother, a paraplegic due to a household accident caused by a childhood Andrew. While there, he goes to a party where people take Ecstasy and make out (think that scene on the barge from Peep Show, minus the comedy and self loathing, plus smugness), and generally knocks about with the slackers with whom he grew up. He meets Sam (Portman) in the doctor’s and falls in love with her. He also sort of talks to his dad about his mum, with little in the way of resolution.

Maybe I’m just jealous that I haven’t met Natalie Portman while wiling away my time in waiting rooms, but she seemed a tad off. Apart from the painfully trite words Braff placed in her mouth like so many cylinders of pre-filling dental sponge, she seemed unwholesomely young for the donkey faced Braff to be getting off with. And I don’t even know why – this was a good half-decade after she had played a young queen in Star Wars, after all. There was also a nodding, winking self awareness to the film, which made the complete lack of wit even more pointed. Sam spouted annoying teen cliché about how weird she was, and how freaked out Largeman must be in her company, apparently only so Largeman could point out the fact that she was doing it.

There was to be no great conclusion to this meandering, other than Largeman deciding to be with Sam rather than return to California. It was like the end of Friends but stripped of any drama or the years of viewing that had invested a level of emotional attachment to Ross and Rachel. The narrative overall, of a quirky girl who brightens up the life of a dullard, was like Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, told from the opposite viewpoint, with infinitely less charming cinematography, setting, characters, performers and plot. There were two more elements of silver lining to this drab, cultural cumulonimbus: the title ‘Guardian of an infinite abyss’ was a nice line and, were it the film’s title, should have invested it with at least a modicum of mystique; and the presence of Method Man. He is awesome, and I never realised he was so tall.

4 thoughts on “Garden State

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