Whenever NBC decides to cancel “Scrubs,” Zach
Braff will have a hell of a career writing and directing
Volkswagen commercials. Remove the dialogue and whittle it down
to 30 seconds, and Garden State could possibly convince
me to buy a Jetta. As a feature-length movie, Garden State
is pretty disappointing.
Probably the most crushing thing about it is that it starts out
fairly strong. The first half-hour is full of little tragicomic
vignettes that display Braff’s Chaplinesque knack for silent
comedy. The film opens on Andrew (Braff) dreaming about being in
a crashing plane. While everyone around him screams and scrambles
for oxygen masks, he dazedly looks up, turns the knob to open the
little vent above his seat, and basks in its little pressurized
air stream. Then we see the bewildered Andrew get out of his car
and discover he has been driving around with the nozzle from a gas
pump sticking out of his tank. Later he’s blankly staring
in the mirror in an airport bathroom, and as he starts to walk out,
he inadvertently sets off a long row of motion-activated sinks.
In this type of exposition Braff has found a great method to detail
the passivity and stupor of his character, but suddenly he abandons
subtlety and ironic humor for bad dialogue, teen-movie conventions,
and an annoying reliance on slow-motion camerawork.
In the film, small-time L.A. actor Andrew Largeman (dubbed “Large”
by hometown friends) flies home to New Jersey for his mother’s
funeral. He’s been away from home for nine years, and at the
cemetery he runs into an old friend, Mark (Sarsgaard),
who is still living at home and smoking pot with his mom. Mark invites
Andrew to a party, where everybody gets really fucked up but little
else happens. Later, at a doctor’s waiting room he meets the
cutesy Sam (Portman), who insists that he listen
to her Shins CD because, “Like, it will totally
change your life.” Don’t get me wrong—I spend
a good portion of my week intoxicated and I also really like The
Shins, but rather than identifying with these people, I found them
absolutely annoying. Braff’s characters are shallow in the
worst possible way—they are posed as deep. A sure-fire way
to alienate your audience is to create a cast of characters in their
mid–to-late-twenties, dealing with issues they should have
dealt with in their mid-to-late-teens (such as realizing that “parents
are people too” and “it’s okay to feel”),
and then have them come out of it all with no sense of irony whatsoever.
In the last half of the movie, Andrew, Sam, and Mark embark on
a little journey. Andrew is a little too Tin Woodsman-like, and
the loser-ish Mark seems to assume the role of the Cowardly Lion.
Sam, of course, is the beautifully spirited girl-child in pigtails
with a heart of pure gold. They roam around together, and instead
of meeting witches and munchkins, they encounter Method
Man and a hooker. Well, okay, no bother, the outcome is
the same: They all do a lot of talking about the idea of “home”
and learn together that there’s no place like it.
Any of the film’s glimmers of profundity are quickly extinguished
by cheap formulas, the most of insulting of which is a surprise
“Guess what! I didn’t get on that plane because I love
you!” ending. Okay, so I just gave away the ending, but you
can’t call it a spoiler because that’s the ending of
about 78% of all romantic comedies and dramas and sitcoms. Sometimes
it’s a train, sometimes it’s a bus, but whatever it
is, it’s just unacceptable.
To close, a word about the title. In this world there are good
puns, bad puns, and puns that make you want to strap bricks to your
shoes and jump into the nearest river. The original title of this
movie was not Garden State, but “Large’s Ark.”
Get it? Not only is there an actual boat in a rainstorm in the movie,
Braff’s character follows an arc. As in, Braff took some screenwriting
seminar and they explained the concept of character development
to him and he thought it was so gosh-darn neat he put it in the
title. Okay, it’s unfair to punish Braff for something that
didn’t make it to the final cut, but exploring the badness
of the shelved title helps clarify the overall feel of this movie.
It’s somewhat intriguing at first, but ultimately just nauseating.