Pop Culture Item Consumed: As the Boozehound Backlash™ chokes the life out of The Dark Knight, I’m calling for a ceasefire on a backlash involving another film, Garden State. Zach Braff’s 2004 breakout film is the poster child for homicidal irritation over films about angst-ridden, 20-something white males. That’s just not OK.
Beverage Consumed: The gin gimlet, another Pantheon Cocktail, i.e., four or fewer ingredients exclusive of water and ice. As someone with a deep well of bitterness in my soul, I greatly enjoy both gin and lime juice, and the gin gimlet is unto a hymn for me. To prepare a classic gimlet, mix three parts gin with one part lime juice and … now for the controversy: Depending on whom you ask, the gin gimlet either absolutely must or absolutely mustn’t contain bar syrup. At one time I was in the purists’ camp — no sugar allowed — but I not only softened with age, I converted. Sans sugar is fine, especially with lots of ice, but bar syrup at about one-half the portion of lime juice gives a refreshing, summery feel to the proceedings. (Extra-fine sugar is OK, but really, at this point in our relationship, you should have some bar syrup around.) Serve on the rocks, and sip slowly until your mouth gets used to the lime. I’m sure it goes without saying that this only works with fresh lime juice, preferably squeezed by another person while you lounge on the veranda.
Summary of Action: Garden State, the story of an emotionally unmoored young man who returns home to deal with his mother’s death after a long absence, was the 2004 winner of the Quirky Movie Sweepstakes, the annual race to see which odd little independent film with the recognizable ensemble cast will become a critics’ darling and a surprise hit. In 2006, it was Little Miss Sunshine. Last year saw the ultimate candidate, Juno. Garden State, clocking an 87% on the ol’ Tomatometer, was widely hailed as the strong debut of a young writer and director with a gift for engaging dialogue and creative imagery. The film grossed over $35 million on a budget of $2.5 million and gave Zach Braff the crossover-star-status he needed as “Scrubs” began to wind down.
So how did Garden State turn into a target of mockery as the Über-hipster quirkfest representing everything wrong with independent film? The sniping that has ramped up over the past three years is generally wrong to the extent it actually relates to the film itself and is based almost entirely on factors having nothing to do with Garden State the film, as opposed to Garden State the post-hoc concept. Those factors are discussed in more detail below, but let’s re-visit what made this film special in the first place.
Braff stars in the film as Andrew Largeman, a pathologically disaffected depressive who returns home from Los Angeles to attend his mother’s funeral in New Jersey after 10 years of separation from his family. Heavily medicated since a young age at the direction of his psychiatrist father, Braff functions as a human shell, disconnected from emotion following a traumatic childhood accident involving his mother — an accident he caused. His mother’s death causes him to go off his meds, and during his visit Braff experiences unmuffled reality for the first time since childhood. As he actively engages with the world, he meets vivacious Sam (Natalie Portman) and re-establishes connections with his high school friends, including ne’er-do-well Mark (Peter Sarsgaard).
Garden State’s plot certainly isn’t unique, falling into the “prodigal-son-returns/meets-girl” outline, yet Garden State is an entirely original and unique creation in its blend of striking imagery, humorous pathos, and a spot-on use of music to create emotional context. The dialogue is generally sharp, the acting ranges from competent to stellar, and Braff shows a remarkable talent for capturing moving visuals. Garden State’s success is largely about tone and feel, but its real strength lies in two major assets that are hard to describe but overwhelmingly present in the film: Braff’s ability to capture visually a powerful sense of longing and loneliness, as well as the joy of relief from both feelings; and a sense of humor ranging from incredibly subtle to enjoyably broad, depending on the moment.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some powerful acting involved. For a first-time director, Braff put together a remarkable collection of talent, with Ian Holm, Method Man, and Jean Smart joining Portman and Sarsgaard, along with an able collection of bit players. Garden State is full of riveting moments that go a long way toward explaining the movie’s success. For example, during the scene in which Braff first tells Portman that his paraplegic mother died, drowning in the bath, Portman’s face slowly blanches with grief and horror, her pretty features carrying a weight of empathetic pain and loss. It would be easy to overplay the scene, but Portman’s reaction feels completely real because she can barely move or speak. Sarsgaard, of course, delivers the goods as well. No one projects habitual sleaze as well as Peter Sarsgaard, but he plays Mark as a marvel of clueless complexity, ineptly puzzling over financial schemes one moment, wisely guiding Braff through the petty criminal underworld the next.
This film also provided the first glimpse of Braff’s abilities to many viewers, and for nearly two hours he calmly holds his own toe to toe with some very accomplished actors — for nearly the entire movie, there is no manic or goofy John Dorian in sight. For one example out of many from this film, during the scene in which gravedigger Sarsgaard casually thieves jewelry from an open coffin while chatting with Braff, Braff delivers a clinic on how to give a slow, startled reaction that perfectly captures the moment of catching a casual friend doing something incredibly unsavory. Better still, Sarsgaard catches Braff catching him, and Sarsgaard’s even, taciturn stare is a masterstroke of underplaying a tense moment.
Garden State belongs to Braff the director, however, who weaves these disparate elements into a tightly plotted picture that defies genre labels. The most striking thing about the movie is its deeply arresting visual appeal — Garden State is full of brilliantly realized images: The idea of a barefoot Natalie Portman tap-dancing in an oversized robe before a giant fireplace may be a bit twee, but the realization of this image on film is absolutely beautiful. Just a few moments later, Braff, Portman and Sarsgaard cruise through town on Braff’s grandfather’s army motorcycle, Braff with his doofy black brainbucket, Portman’s arms clenched around him, and beautiful, dissolute Sarsgaard lazily kicked back in the sidecar.
Literally every scene has an arresting image, and even the less subtle moments are still beautifully observed. As Braff walks from the airport men’s’ room after washing his hands, every faucet flicks on as he passes, cued by the faucets’ motion sensors. (This has actually happened to me as I walked by a row of sensor urinals at a ballgame.) Or Braff’s standing in the bathroom wearing the shirt his mother’s friend made out of leftover material from the fabric used in the bathroom redecorating. There’s no one-liner, there’s just Braff standing there camouflaged, looking like a face hung on the wall.
Part of the beauty of Garden State is the way Braff ties in the visual appeal with the humor, as well as bridging the humor from scene to scene and tying funny bits together through little inside jokes with the viewer. Early in the film we see Braff at Sarsgaard’s house, “BALLS” prominently written on his forehead by someone from the party the night before. It’s a good moment, lightly humorous and totally grounded in reality - who hasn’t done this to someone? A couple of scenes later, as Braff is undergoing a physical exam, we see his naked torso going into the MRI tube … with insults and vulgarities written in black marker all over his body. This type of linkage goes on throughout the film in ways large and small and further reflects a sure hand on the part of the screenwriter and a subtle sensibility on the part of the director.
Despite showing a deft touch with the comic aspects of the film, there are bits in Garden State that foreshadowed that clumsy Braff touch that has come to plague “Scrubs.” At the beginning of the film, Braff gets out of his car and notices the torn-off gas pump nozzle hanging from his open gas cap — he’s so out of it he forgot to replace the gas pump. I groan inwardly every time I see this sequence, primarily because I know how out of sync it is with the rest of the movie. Braff generally grounds the film on subtle humor, such as the very next sequence in the restaurant where he works. As Braff walks through, we see another restaurant worker dressed in Chinese peasant clothes and shouldering a bamboo water bucket harness, offering diners “sparkling or flat.” This cloddishly offensive display is exactly the type of thing I’ve seen in too many ethnic restaurants to count, and Braff squarely captures the exact image and tone to mock the practice without going broad. In contrast, the gas cap incident is an Airplane-type moment that is jarring as well as unnecessary in this type of picture.
Braff also shows a strong grasp of the skill of unspooling a story at the proper pace, and one of his finest storytelling moments comes in the early going. As the film begins, we learn from the answering machine voice of Braff’s father, played by Holm, of the death of Braff’s mother. Braff opens his medicine cabinet to an impressive array of drugs we later learn are antidepressants and mood stabilizers. Braff looks at the drugs and silently closes the medicine cabinet without taking any. Although Braff’s relationship with his medication lies at the center of the film, no more is spoken of his decision to go off his meds until substantially later. It takes a confident director to trust the viewer with a subtle point, to avoid overselling it with clunky exposition or even worse [shudder], voiceover narration.
So what went wrong? The primary criticism of Garden State seems to be that its collection of oddball characters and their personality traits, which range from eccentric to bizarre, is too precious and unlikely; too off-the-wall to exist in reality. I’ve heard similar criticism of chatty, smart films like Barcelona, the idea that the work is less worthy because people don’t really talk that way. To which I say, “Bwuh.” Have you ever sat in a restaurant or bar and listened to the way people really talk? 99.9% of the words spoken on this planet are drivel, painful to listen to, idiotic to comprehend, and generally unsupportive of the idea that mankind deserves to survive. Thanks but no thanks on that real-life thing, I’ll take some quirk. Does anyone think that Casablanca reflects some sort of reality in terms of the fringe criminals operating nightclubs under Nazi occupation? Granted, it’s a bit precious that Braff, Portman, and Sarsgaard stand in the pouring rain, swaddled in garbage bags, screaming into a bottomless quarry. It’s still far more interesting than most of the crap that passes for cinema these days.
Closely related is the after-the-fact perception that Garden State was a part of, rather than a cause of, the sudden tidal wave of cutesy indie quirk. Garden State wasn’t successful because of its collection of oddball characters; it was the writing and execution that made the film good. Yet Garden State and films like it provided a pass to filmmakers unable to overcome the constraints of traditional narratives with their own original ideas. Instead, it quickly became the convention to simply assemble a cast of freakish social pariahs, throw them into bizarre scenarios, and let the cameras roll. Predictably, this strategy did not consistently yield good movies, but it did irritate the hell out of a lot of people. Thanks a lot, Garden State.
Another major criticism is the “plight of the sad young white man” dismissal. In distant retrospect it becomes easy to write pithy one-liners about privileged crackers and their burdensome sense of ennui. Rarely among the bitter critics of this movie, however, will one find an acknowledgment of the film’s most fundamental plot point: The emotional context of the film isn’t some vague coming-of-age nonsense — see Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown, an absolute Garden State ripoff — but rather the story of a person whose father medicated him into oblivion with Howitzer-level psychotropic drugs from the time he was ten years old, in response to the kid’s causing his own mother’s paralysis in a freak accident. Far from a paean to the woe-is-me emo wails of disenchanted suburban kids, Garden State is a muted hymn about an over-medicated child who paralyzed his mother, ultimately leading to her early death. How many Ritalin kids lost parts of their childhoods and adolescences to over-prescribing?
Obviously a great deal of this backlash springs from Braff’s post-Garden State choices. His newfound clout allowed him to make several decisions that were either poorly thought out or simply unlucky. First, he elected to play the lead in the execrable The Last Kiss, an irredeemable clot of a movie in which Braff’s unsympathetic shithead character betrays his loving pregnant wife with a college coed, basically because he’s just not ready to get his shit together. The Last Kiss totally sucked it. Guess who else made the same mistake? Aside from Casey Affleck and Blythe Danner, none other than the irreproachable Tom Wilkinson turned up in this turd. It’s not like Braff was at a stage in his career where he could just decide to be the lead in any movie in Hollywood. Regardless of his success, he still has that schnozz.
Well, one might ask, didn’t he see that Paul Haggis was attached to the project? Yes, and like every other actor in Hollywood — including such Pajiba honoraries as Don Cheadle, Terrance Howard, and Clint Eastwood — Braff apparently doesn’t know that Haggis blows. Nor does most of the Western world, which continues to consume Haggis’s shit sandwiches as if they were Krispy Kremes. The Last Kiss had “hit” written all over it.
Alas, Braff hadn’t quite shot his entire foot off. Next time out, he took the lead role in The Ex, a movie so badly executed that it goes by a different name in its DVD life. Yet The Ex sounds great in the abstract: Braff plays a likeable ne’er-do-well with a gorgeous wife (Amanda Peet). Braff ends up working for Peet’s high school boyfriend (Jason Bateman), who still has a major jones for Peet. Like the cast so far? How about Charles Grodin, Donal Logue, and Amy Poehler? How about cameos from Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, and Amy Adams? How did Steve Carell not star in this?
The reason that Braff can’t get the benefit of the doubt, I suspect, and the real reason for the breadth of the backlash against Garden State, is the one reason for which Braff is truly at fault, though it has nothing to do with the film. Over the last three seasons of “Scrubs,” Braff has used his creative clout to turn that show from a fast-paced, cleverly oddball comedy into a slapsticky, cartoonish shadow of itself. I’m not a “Scrubs” aficionado, but I catch the reruns with some frequency, and I know enough to avoid anything generated after 2005.
Without a doubt, Braff has some serious repair work ahead of him in terms of his artistic credibility, and the historical perception of Garden State will rise or fall based on whether he succeeds. Getting into a public pissing match with NBC over a sitcom that’s clearly blowing dust was not the way to go. Braff needs to get “Scrubs” behind him as soon as possible. It must be hard to let go of the vehicle that made him a star, not to mention all that money. But if that’s to be his legacy, then the haters actually have his number after all.
There are plenty of reasons to be irritated with Zach Braff; Garden State, a dazzling achievement for a first-time director, isn’t one of them. At any rate, it beats the crap out of The Dark Knight.
How the Pairing Held Up: You might think I like booze and cinema, given that it’s hard to imagine being more content than watching Garden State while knocking down a pitcher of gin gimlets. Highly recommended.
Tastes Like: Slurping Boodles gin from Natalie Portman’s ensellure, just before she rolls over and kisses you while chewing a lime-flavored Starburst. Guh, I got geek wood just typing that.
Overall Rating: Robert Downey, Jr. says “Huzzah!”
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at email@example.com.
Garden State: The Boozehound Cinephile / Ted Boynton
Boozehound Cinephile | August 15, 2008 | Comments ()