The success of Zach Braff’s debut film, Garden State, may in part be due to audiences and critics alike excusing many of its flaws since it (supposedly) speaks so strongly to the generation of the man who created it. The quirky character traits, unnatural dialogue, and cutesy tone of the film are all serving to communicate with a certain niche, so as long these techniques are successful in doing so, no harm, no foul, right? Despite Braff’s intentions and the sincerity of what he brings to the screen, I have to point out how self-absorbed, trite, inconsequential and unsatisfying the film is because Braff is so eager to please. His heroine, played oh-so-adorably by Natalie Portman – who, to her credit, does all she could with the lines she was given – is less representative of an actual human being and closer to a fictional construct in the fantasy of lonely, depressed young adult who would wake up from the dream to the disappointing realization that she could never actually exist. The films lighthearted tone makes it easy to not take such concerns seriously, but as Braff deals with themes such as depression, suicide, over-medication, and drug use in a society that is so messed up that many youths find it necessary to go through life completely numb, the one-dimensional characters, predictable character and story arcs, and painful stretches of dialogue (“This is my life, dad. This is it.”) stand out as more than just your typical rookie mistakes.
Braff puts enough original touches into the story to make its typical plot – a young man comes home and confronts his dysfunctional past before moving on to adulthood – avoid cliche for the most part, but the biggest problems lie in the simplistic nature of the characters and the reliance on quirkiness, rather than genuine, realistic emotion, to connect with its audience. The trendy soundtrack, awkward characters, and broad dialogue ironically work like the very subscription drugs Braff condemns, distancing the audience from the actual pain the characters experience by masking them with comfortable or familiar attributes rather than dealing with them beyond a surface level.
Ultimately the films emotions are drowned out by an inordinate number of shots of Braff staring thoughtfully off into space, generically talking about LIFE’S BIG ISSUES, or confronting his own demons with friends and family who seem only concerned with his problems. The fact that his best friend is still a pot-smoking underachiever, his new girlfriend deals with a serious medical condition on a daily basis, and his father is left to deal with the grief of his recently deceased wife are of little concern in a cinematic universe where the world revolves around only Andrew. The problems of others are only given screen time when they directly effect his journey to self-realization, or at least out of the drug-induced haze which he’s been living under for as long as he can remember. So concerned is the film with making sure our eyes are always on him that it becomes ineffective by trapping us in his point of view and expecting us to believe that’s actually how it is. For such a self-loathing, unsocial character (though to his credit, he’s doing his damnedest to get out of this rut) to not only suddenly be accepted amongst old friends he’s stopped contacting long ago and a beautiful, young woman often crosses the line from mere convenience to the forbidden territory of ridiculous contrivance. As a light, fluffy comedy about the difficulty of adapting to adult life, Garden State has its moments, but the deep, dark themes its brings into play early on are never given the seriousness they deserve and it often feels like Braff, as well as his character, are in need of a reality check. However, even with all it’s flaws, I did get the sense that Braff is a blossoming talent who may only have needed to deal with some personal issues in his debut film before feeling free to create a film that exists outside of himself. We need all the talented, young filmmakers that we can get, so I wish him all the luck in the future. It’s likely he’ll need it.
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