Having heard almost all positive things about this movie over the years, I expected to like Garden State more than I did.
I gather it’s a film that speaks to a lot of people–especially young adults–and rings emotionally true to them. I didn’t come away disliking it, but nor did it reach me on a deep level like that.
This is one of those indie movies filled with quirky characters doing quirky things, but that also tries to make some serious points. But I don’t know that the quirky stuff is integrated all that well into this movie. It’s like it’s just there to lighten the mood and add an occasional chuckle, but to me it is distracting at least as much as it enhances the film.
Zach Braff (who also directs) plays a TV actor who returns to his home town upon the death of his mother. He tries to work through his issues with his domineering, psychiatrist father, he reestablishes ties with some people he grew up with, and he meets a potential girlfriend (Natalie Portman).
Much of the film consists of scenes of Braff drifting along, observing the people he encounters with a sort of dazed puzzlement and bemusement as they do and say the darndest things. (His emotionally flat reaction to things is explained by the fact that he’s been on prescription drugs most of his life to keep him from experiencing too much pain or anger over a childhood trauma.)
I have a sense of why this is a popular movie with the young adult or college crowd.
For one thing, while dependence on prescription drugs (that is, drugs pushed on you by the Establishment'”in Braff’s case, his own father) is presented negatively, recreational drugs are presented as a natural, normal part of life and social interaction.
More broadly, there’s a general anti-judgmental feel to the movie that I think would appeal to conventional young people who’ve received a lot of relativist or post-modernist influence in their schooling.
I think of this, for instance, in connection with the one buddy (Peter Sarsgaard) Braff hangs out with the most upon his return.
I found him to be a mildly distasteful fellow in general. He shoplifts, he works as a grave digger and steals from the corpses, he’s a druggie, and he has a kind of surly manner much of the time.
But he also seems like the kind of guy who has the right intangibles to be accepted and appreciated. You know, he’s kind of a fun, casual guy to hang out with, he probably wouldn’t screw over his friends, he shows at least some capacity for kindness. He’s the kind of person you can imagine the folks in his life agreeing “Oh, he’s a good guy,” one of the “automatics” to invite to a party and have in your life.
And I don’t think he’s some horrible person, but he’s certainly got some scumbag elements to him. But this is the kind of movie where I feel like if I react against those scumbag elements at all, I’m some kind of square who’s being all priggish.
I should at least have liked the ending to this film, but for some reason it didn’t win me over.
Braff, who has experienced a kind of emotional reawakening from being off his prescriptions, prepares to leave town to return to his life. In these few days he’s been back for a visit, he’s been engaged in a dalliance with Portman (who is not someone he’d known from before). They have a big emotional scene where he changes his mind about leaving, because he realizes he’s in love with her and he feels he has to let his heart make the call on something this important to his life.
Normally I’m all for that kind of thing. I’m a romantic at heart, and I tend to like even fairly sappy “love conquers all” moments when soulmates get together. Both in real life and in movies and such. I think one of the most important things in life is to spot love when it’s available and to realize how crucial it is to not let that opportunity get away.
I’m not sure why I reacted with more of a shrug here though.
Maybe Portman herself didn’t seem all that great to me. In terms of looks I have zero complaints certainly, and I typically find the “free spirit” attitude a positive in people (she’s got the quirkiness thing in spades), but I just don’t see a lot else there. She’s one of those aggressively goofy, affected people who blurts out whatever pops into her head and expects it to be treated as admirable frankness or general cuteness. She’s OK, but just doesn’t come across as particularly mature or stable.
This is one of those rare times when maybe the head should overrule the heart on relationship matters. Because Braff’s kind of unstable himself, having just come off his medications, and when he talks about needing to re-establish his own life as an individual, that makes a heck of a lot more sense than throwing oneself into something with someone (none too stable herself) that one has known for only a few days.
Normally I would still say to grab the opportunity, but I guess it wasn’t just that I didn’t feel all that drawn to her, but also that I wasn’t buying the chemistry between them, so I wasn’t convinced he was all that drawn to her. He’s in a daze most of the movie after all, and even as he starts to come alive emotionally, it’s all about him and digging into himself and understanding himself, with her and the other people serving more as bit players. I didn’t sense he was all that focused on her, or feeling anything real deep for her.
I was at least somewhat interested the whole way with this movie, so again I wouldn’t say I disliked it. But it’s at least a little overrated (or maybe just doesn’t match my tastes as well as it would those of its intended audience).