Friday, September 7, 2012

Cult Classic?! I've No Hope For Humanity . . . Garden State

The Good: One or two moments of character, Ian Holm
The Bad: Most of the characters and acting are terrible, Plot is nonexistent or hackneyed.
The Basics: Dull, predictable and uninspired in acting and writing, Garden State disappoints the viewer who was enthusiastically anticipating the viewing.

A very good friend of mine warned me against being too critical of Garden State after I panned The Last Kiss (reviewed here!). She informed me that there's something of a cult that has grown up around the movie Garden State and that Zach Braff is considered the second coming for writing, directing and acting in the movie. I know it's chic to take shots at celebrities when they become ridiculously well-paid, but the timing of this review is coincidence. And before I tear into someone's new Bible, let me start with the caveat that I was looking forward to Garden State. It's been on my list for years.

Andrew Largeman, a bit actor in Hollywood, returns to New Jersey when his mother drowns in the bathtub. He has been living a life as a twenty-something in Hollywood half asleep and half bored. He returns to New Jersey, avoiding his issues with his father, to hook up with friends, fall in love with a local girl, and come to understand that life is for the living and it's time he started living in the present and for a future.

I'll start my rant off with my real problem with Garden State; almost everyone is a stupid stereotype of youth. I cannot recall the last time I watched a movie about people in their twenties when there was not excessive drinking, drug use, smoking or open, emotionless, sexuality. I can live with sex, but I'm sick of seeing young people universally portrayed as idiotic drug-using, smoking, boozers that lack genuine personality and real rebellious spirit. If this truly is the future of America, the United States is doomed. If this is considered entertaining, the next generation is as lost as every prior generation has always secretly feared.

I call the characters idiotic because the prevalence of drug culture as mainstream youth (as presented in Garden State and innumerable other teen-oriented coming-of-age films) culture is characterized by the most selective stupidity I've yet witnessed. So, while Andrew acknowledges he is a Hollywood actor, but refuses to do coke, he - moments later - pops whatever pill is handed to him. Moron. This is on top of the pharmacy of antidepressants Andrew is on.

And on that front, Garden State writer Zach Braff ought to have done some homework. In a scene in the movie where Andrew visits a neurologist, the doctor tells him that antidepressants clear the system relatively fast, which is the opposite of truth (a number of the SRIs take time to build up in the blood stream, should not be ended abruptly and can cause withdrawal symptoms up to a month after usage is terminated if the system is not properly weaned from them). As problematic is just the basic sense of the pharmacy of Andrew is on and the lack of interactions with the various drugs he uses in the course of Garden State.

I'm sorry, there are a lot of cliche ideas in film and literature; coming of age, mid-life crisis, deathbed conversions. We've seen these things. I suppose every generation needs a coming of age film/novel. Then again, it's hard to top The Catcher In The Rye. Garden State is a particularly witless coming of age; the protagonist is barely believable as someone who either has coasted as long as he has without dealing with his problems or someone who hasn't already gotten over them. That is, the elements of his backstory that come up in the movie seem like they ought to have been dealt with already in order for him to have remained functional as long as he has or there didn't seem enough in the movie to wake him up.

Either way, the plot has been done. It's been done to death and this is not a particularly compelling coming of age. Andrew is not an interesting protagonist. He's dull, dull to watch and it's hard to feel empathy for one who willingly surrounds himself with such losers as Andrew does. Like Napoleon Dynamite (reviewed here!), Garden State is a much-hyped movie with characters that are supposedly original and compelling, but fall short.

The only marginally interesting characters are the two supporting characters in Andrew's life. Andrew's father, Gideon, is aloof, but intelligent and every scene he's in is riveting. Similarly, Sam, Andrew's love interest is far more interesting than Andrew, though from her first moments she seems ridiculously young.

On that note, let's explore the acting. Natalie Portman plays Sam and from the first moments she is on screen, she seems to be playing Sam as young. Sam is very open with opinions, but the level of enthusiasm and lack of discretion was so childlike as to be troubling. Honestly, she was playing the role in a way that was more appropriate for a character five years old than eighteen. Later in the film, as Sam and Andrew move through their days and the obstacles they find there, Portman's acting becomes more age-appropriate and the performance is better.

Ian Holm is great as the taciturn Gideon, ruling each scene he is in with a sense of sensibility that makes the film watchable at least for the few minutes he is in it. Similarly, Ann Dowd is recognizable and wonderful in her bit role as Olivia, Sam's mother. It is refreshing to see her bring maturity and dignity to this movie.

But the film rests mostly on the back of Zack Braff and there it dies. Braff is quite good at creating a low-key affect. But it doesn't bring us into his character. In fact, Braff's performance is so understated as to make his character repulsive; the viewer does not want to get to know Andrew because from the opening frames (where he imagines going down in a plane crash and he sits unphased by the experience) he seems too unbelievably boring. He's not enjoyable or interesting to watch and Braff's performance only serves to distance the viewer from whatever internal struggle the character might be going through.

Were I truly jaded, I might suggest that Zach Braff's first directoral effort was simply an insecure attempt to kiss Natalie Portman. But that would be real jaded. As it stands, I'm at a loss as to why Garden State resonates with so many young people. Were I them, I would see it as a cautionary tale and strive for better.

For other works with Peter Sarsgaard, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Green Lantern
Knight And Day
The Cell


For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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