Saturday, July 26, 2014

From My Collection: Garden State Movie Review

I really liked Garden State ten years ago. At the time I was still very much into a certain indie sensibility that rejected the mainstream for its own sake and expressed the ennui of being in your mid-20s and without direction, feeling like your parents’ completely screwed you up. Over the years as I thought about the movie – and I’ve begun thinking about it more recently because it’s ten years old and Zach Braff’s follow-up has finally arrived in cinemas – I thought of it as annoyingly precious, too perfect in its indie romantic sensibility. But watching it again I found it really holds up well. I was remembering it all wrong. Braff is a romantic softy at heart and the sappy feel-good ending is a little tacked on in the interest of living out some romantic fantasy, but all in all, Garden State works.

Braff plays Andrew Largeman, an emotionally numb young man, summoned home to New Jersey from his insular life as an actor in L.A. for his mother’s funeral. Her death is a bit of a mystery. His father leaves a rather cold message on his answering machine announcing that she drowned in the bath. How does a grown woman drown in the bath? But the mystery unfolds organically as he reveals later that she was in a wheelchair. So was it an accident? And why she was in a wheelchair is the most key ingredient to explain how Andrew’s life has turned out. When he was nine, he got angry and pushed her. Because of some terrible luck, this resulted in her hitting her neck on the open dishwasher door and winding up paraplegic. But Andrew further talks about being such an angry boy – emotions that led to the push – because his mother was always depressed. And so another layer is added to the mystery of who Andrew is. We’re forced to re-evaluate – as Andrew must be doing continually – the circumstances of his mother’s death.

It’s not so much that this is a central focal point of the story, but that it plays a central role in the formation of Andrew as a man. He’s basically fled his family and home town, a victim of meddlesome psychiatric care from his own father (Ian Holm), who has kept him heavily medicated most of his life Andrew begins to believe the medication has made him worse off.

He reconnects with some old friends, most of whom might be more disturbed than he is. They help him find grounding and maybe get back to his authentic self. Peter Sarsgaard plays an old high school pal, now a grave digger who steals jewelry from the dead and lives a social life of regular recreational drug use interspersed with waking up to find one of his old classmates (a younger but very much the same Jim Parsons) crawling out of his mother’s bedroom. The other friend is a multi-millionaire thanks to his invention of silent Velcro. He lives alone in a mansion with no furniture and a life without direction. But it’s meeting Sam that really settles Andrew, or helps him find some enjoyment for a brief time. Sam is the most annoying aspect of the movie being a quintessential manic pixie dream girl. And Natalie Portman’s performance is a little irritating. I just have trouble believing her as this rare bird who compulsively lies and does grating things like suddenly contort her body in unusual ways while squawking bizarre sounds so she can, for a moment, be totally unique and original. Come on! No one is that self-deluded beyond age twelve, right? But isn’t it just so adorable, Braff seems to be saying?

Braff touches on interesting themes. This is, in addition to a story of finding yourself during that precarious time in your mid-twenties and an exploration of how family affects you for a lifetime, also a look at the way your idea of home changes as you grow up and move on. Andrew no longer sees his childhood home as “home.” Los Angeles is his home and he’s sort of desperate to get back there which will help him further avoid a conversation with his father.

Braff’s script is amusing, touch, an occasionally insightful. He’s got a great ear for the dialogue of friendship that has been on hiatus for a decade and sputter to reconnect. And the scenes between Andrew and his dad struck me as so perfectly uncomfortable. The writing captures the disconnect between them and Holm’s reserved performance puts enormous space between the two of them. These elements are wonderful in spite of the main female character being a fantasy creation whose sole reason for existing in the story is to help Andrew find himself. Nathan Rabin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl (and later disowned it) and he was truly on to something important in female character writing. Women deserve better and Garden State would be better-served either by having a more credible female lead or by having Andrew walk away at the end. Because by returning to her, he’s essentially coming back to a void. There can be no future with her as she’s written. Andrew deserves better than an empty shirt.

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