Movies That Settle: Garden State

Posted: February 18, 2016 in Movies That Settle, Uncategorized

It’s possible I may picking on someone’s favorite movie with this one. Or maybe not. I really don’t have a very good gauge for contemporary pop culture. That’s why I write about movies from many years ago and whether they’re still good or not. It’s sort of my thing. Although I’m definitely not alone, because I did find this article during my research.

The other reason I write about these movies is because my opinion on them has usually changed greatly over time. This change may be due to circumstances in my own life, or the changes may be more societal, but something has brought it on. Obviously, since the movies haven’t changed much, unless it’s Star Wars and George Lucas has been dicking with it. But I am aware that some people’s opinions don’t waver like mine, because they probably saw a movie when it came out, liked it, and if they happen to see it again, they remember that experience and it brings a smile to their face, and it colors their opinion of that movie forever. Which is totally fine. I have had that moment many times in my life, and it’s great. However, I have too often had the opposite reaction, as well. I very often see a movie again and think, “Whoa. I used to like this movie. What happened?” Most of the time, though, it’s just a matter of perspective. As one gets older, things you used to think were important turn out to be kind of silly.

Recently, Garden State was on one of the many movie channels I get, and even though I only watched a few minutes of it, I cringed almost every second. At least every second when Natalie Portman was talking. Now, before anyone reading this (anyone?) chastises me because this is a wonderful romantic film made a by a young auteur and with an amazing soundtrack to boot, hear me out. I know it may not sound like it, but I am not saying this is necessarily a bad movie. This is simply a movie that I saw in 2004, when I was 28 and wide-eyed, and enjoyed a great deal. And saw again recently as a completely different man of 39 and realized that it was absolute hokum. Believe me, hokum has it’s place in the world. Just not quite this much.

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So, let’s get to it: the film revolves around Zach Braf, probably playing some version of himself since he also wrote and directed it, returning to his childhood hometown to attend his mother’s funeral. Zach’s character, as Zach did himself, has gone to Hollywood to become and actor and left all the glory of whatever podunk town he grew up in behind. Well, sort of. As the movie progresses we discover that poor, famous, movie-star Zach is tortured because when he was a little kid, he pushed his mother over and she fell and hit her neck on the open dishwasher and became paraplegic. His psychiatrist/dickhead father then sent him away to some boarding school for his trouble, and he was on horse-paralyzing amounts of medication for all of the ensuing years. According to the movie, he was always on them so he never really thought about getting off them, but, Jesus, you’d think at some point in the last decade the kid would nut-up and realize he didn’t need all those drugs. I’m sure some pot would have loosened him right up.

While home, he goes to a party at the home of his “unimpressive” friend, played by Stellan Skaarsgard (Whoops. I mean, Peter Sarsgaard), where he proceeds to get drunk, play Spin the Bottle(!), and wake up with the word BALLS written across his forehead. This prompts one of the only funny lines in a movie with thousands of supposedly funny lines, uttered matter-of-factly by Jim Parsons, a.k.a. the guy who now plays Sheldon the Butch on Big Bang Theory: “By the way, it says balls on your face.” I guess what the movie was trying to illustrate with this scene was that Zach (who plays a character with the rather on-the-nose name Andrew Largeman) has evolved past all these things, since he’s a big Hollywood actor now, but come on, he did get drunk and stoned and play Spin The Bottle and make out with Amy Furgeson (who does, like, real movies now), so he really doesn’t have a leg to stand on. But good on him. She was cute.

The pretension is totally unleashed when Andrew goes to a doctor to literally have his head examined and runs afoul of Natalie Portman’s Sam, who is at the doctor because she’s whacked. Okay, okay. It was for epilepsy. But she is whacked. They begin talking in the waiting room, and she introduces him to the Shins song that will “change his life,” which is a great song that was kind of ruined by this movie. Then he drives her home, and to his friend’s house, and then they bury her dead hamster together. You know, typical first date stuff. The whole time they are together, she keeps telling him that it’s not a date and there’s nothing happening here, but, come on. We all know they’re going to do it eventually. Thinking on it now, it might have made for a better movie if they were just buddies, and we didn’t have to put up with this ham-fisted love story and her stupid platitudes.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term “Manic-Pixie Dream Girl,” it was a phrase coined by Nathan Rabin to describe trope characters like Sam. I think he was originally referring to Kirsten Dunst in ef2cf850-f804-0131-6db2-0aa0f90d87b4Elizabethtown when he came up with it, but since Garden State came out first, I’m going to say that Sam was the catalyst. Either way, it is defined as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” It’s kind of sad when you realize that this is a thing, and it is a thing that brings this entire movie down, unfortunately.

I once wrote a really long rant called “Llyod Dobler is a Made-Up Person.” The crux of the rant being that Lloyd Dobbler, the romantic, boom box-wielding idiot who swept Ione Skye off her feet by playing “In Your Eyes” in Say Anything, ruined romance for a generation of girls who thought that all guys should be that dreamy, but in fact none of them are. He’s completely made-up, and completely ridiculous. This is also true of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. No one talks or acts like Sam in Garden State, and if such a person did exist, wouldn’t you just find her so annoying that you’d want to slap her?  I mean, this is just one of the annoying exchanges between the two lovebirds:

Andrew Largeman: Fuck, this hurts so much.

Sam: I know it hurts. That’s life. If nothing else, It’s life. It’s real, and sometimes it fuckin’ hurts, but it’s sort of all we have.

You know what else hurts? Movie dialogue that’s supposed to be deep and meaningful. But maybe I’m just being cynical. Obviously, some people like it:

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(Hah! You two idiots got the same tattoo!)

I wish I could say that Sam says that line in a laid-back, “what-can-ya-do?” kind of way. But she doesn’t. She’s being completely serious. And that is the problem for the entire movie. It just takes itself so seriously and tries so hard to be poignant that it blasts right past “poignant” and goes straight to “dippy.” Take the scene where they are all swimming in the pool, except Andrew because he never learned how to swim at the school for mom-cripplers he was sent to, and he gets all philosophical on Sam, realizing that he was homesick for a place that doesn’t exist, and waxing, “Just because it’s a house doesn’t mean it’s a home.” Yeah, douchebag. You got sent away and wished you could go home, only to realize that home was not that cool. Ever hear that the grass is always greener? It’s called adulthood. I’d say jump in, but you can’t swim.

Despite all of this ridiculousness, Garden State has some high points. If I had the time, I would do my own “Phantom-Edit” and simply cut out Natalie Portman entirely, and have it be a cool buddy comedy about Peter Saarsgard taking Braf on an emotional (but weird) journey to get his mom’s jewelry back. Those, to me, are the best scenes of the whole movie. Like when they go to the hardware store to steal something only to return it for the cash, and encounter their deranged classmate who is embroiled in a pyramid scheme. Or at the hotel when they have to deal with the sex-crazed bell-hop played by Method Man who reveals that he regularly spies on the guests. Or the weird family who live at the bottom of the quarry… Ok, never mind. I would probably still edit that out.

The best part about that whole storyline was that there was no over-blown “come-to-Jesus” moment. Braf got the jewelry back, was kind of astonished that they had traveled around Jersey all day just for that, and Saarsgard, as most men would do in that situation, says, “See ya,” and is basically never heard from again. had that been the whole movie, I could look back on it and say, “Now that was a quirky, little indie flick.” Instead, I look back and think, “He knew Natalie Portman for, what, a weekend? And he’s giving it all up for her?”

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Like I said above, I do realize that this is mostly a matter of perspective, and there was a time when I thought this movie was really good. And there is the possibility that the countless indie copycats have made this one retroactively annoying. However, one thing I learned in all my screenwriting classes was that you have to write for the future. Unless you’re making The Wedding Singer, you really don’t want your movie to become dated in this way. And not by the clothes or music (because that soundtrack still holds up), but in the characters and their beliefs. If Zach Braf wanted to make a statement through Andrew Largeman, he shouldn’t have made one that would seem frivolous to anyone in their thirties.

Comments
  1. […] because in a few years, they might realize it’s not as good as they thought (Like I did with this movie). When a movie has to try this hard to get you to feel something, it’s probably a sign that […]

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