Zach Braff is a thing again. Well, he is being talked about again. After appearing to break through to a new level beyond sitcom actor with 2004’s Garden State Braff kind of fell into the background. There was still the sitcom, a few other films and considerably less chatter about an actor whose directorial debut resonated strongly with a specific demo of an up and coming generation.
A few weeks before its ten-year anniversary and Braff’s second feature Wish I Was Here, I took a trip back in the “Was I Nuts?”-mobile to see what the fuss was all about and whether or not embarrassment is in due order.
Garden State is an all Braff production; written, directed and starring the man, then in his late 20s. Braff plays Andrew Largeman, a working television actor of minor regard. Andrew returns home to his titular state for his mother’s funeral. On numerous meds for his morose mental state, Andrew finds himself still at odds with his father (Ian Holm), confused by the distance with old friends and sure of very things in his life.
He is a man without a home, no longer fitting in where he grew up and uncomfortable in his current Los Angeles situation. Andew wanders around his hometown with his old buddy Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and discovers a romantic bond with the quirky, equally insecure Sam (Natalie Portman).
I couldn’t have been more in the target audience for Garden State if I was concocted in a lab. Braff’s picture came out months after my college graduation, a time of figuring out what the hell I wanted to do with my degree, life, year or day. A world of options can be scary, especially if it feels, as it did for me, like you’re the only one that doesn’t have his or her shit together.
Into that came a movie featuring lines of dialogue I had literally said variations on time and again. The line by Braff’s Andrew about the moment where the idea of having a home is irrelevant was something I had bantered around with friends for months. As such, Garden State resonated deeply. I connected with its lead, understood the notion of friends of yore seeming more akin to strangers and, of course, was swept up in its soundtrack of singer-songwriters. Plenty of people were fans of The Shins beforehand, but I was one of those people introduced to the band when Portman’s character takes off her headphones and tells our protagonist, “You gotta hear this one song, it’ll change your life I swear.”
Articles at the time referred to the movie as a touchstone ala The Graduate, even if the quality wasn’t innately recognized as equal. Big soundtrack? Yep. Story of mid-20s malaise? Check. An ending that asks “Where now?” Check. Maybe some didn’t think the movie’s were on the same footing, but at 22, it sure felt like it had potential to be more than a fleeting fancy. Looking back at my, gulp, Livejournal, it was ranked as my third favorite movie of 2004.
Even upon its release, there were some decrying Braff’s creation as irksomely quirky and self-aware. The Portman character was a big focal point, the stereotypical Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl; warm to others, even as she was miserable herself. A woman who would bring out the best in you; plus she’d recommend to you some sweet tunes. Time and again, I would hear someone say, “People like her don’t exist,” even as I’d claim the old, “Well, I know people like her.”
I did too. Yet, this decade later, I wonder if Sam will come off as unbearable and goofy. Will Andrew be a mopey annoyance or an authentic take on the quarter-life-crisis. In 2004, I thought of the movie as one of that year’s pinnacle cinematic achievements. Right now, I fret it is youthful naivety or merely being too close to a subject matter to judge reasonably. Still…I’m pretty sure Sarsgaard is going to engage.
My worry is that this once beloved movie will be a twee nightmare.
What sticks out at me most of all upon a fresh viewing of Garden State is how much of it is quiet. For all of the ink spent on its ballyhooed soundtrack, Braff allows the majority of his movie to play in rooms of usually two people talking. The movie’s earnestness is, typically, not underscored or commented upon by anyone other than the characters involved.
As such, I was surprised by how well the movie holds ten years later. It doesn’t rank with the best movies of that year, yet it isn’t an embarrassing youthful indiscretion either. Braff nails the uncomfortable sense one gets upon returning home, particularly how you are a recognized element of other people’s lives, but everyone else has grown together. Inside jokes and stories about that “one” time are unknown; in essence you’re a stranger that people recognize. Despite deep histories together, you are no more than another person someone once had a Geometry class with.
The scenes between Braff and Sarsgaard especially nail this aura. Braff’s character seems to have nothing in common with Sarsgaard’s, hanging out with him because who else is he going to talk to in town. A breakfast scene where they wake from a night of partying is excellent, with Sarsgaard’s mother (an excellent Jean Smart) bickering with her son about his station in life, while also discussing her fling with a much younger man (Jim Parsons of all people).
The rest of the film lands well more often than it doesn’t, even if it isn’t consistent in any one area. The relationship between Braff and his father (Ian Holm) doesn’t receive enough shading. Holm is terrific in the opening though. We only hear his voice deliver the news of Braff’s mother’s death on the answering machine. There is urgency and pain in Holm’s tenor that is heartbreaking and Braff stages it all at a soft overhead distance of himself barely awake in bed. Braff himself can’t quite hit the notes for his dramatic side, stuttering through the words in a manner that feels a bit too practiced; not bad, just a bit underwhelming.
The comedy of the movie also rambles in quality. The presentation of a woman singing Lionel Richie’s “Three Times a Lady” with screechy results is off the mark, implying that Braff’s family and friends are weirdoes in a forced manner. A later scene featuring Method Man at a hotel and a gaggle of men peeping through holes in hotel rooms on unsuspecting couples having sex is, frankly, icky; in no small part to the way those new to the proceedings shrug their shoulders at it as merely a whacky thing some guys do. Then there is the Natalie Portman scenario.
At first glance, Sam is all the things I feared. She is unbearably quirky, intruding into the protagonist’s life and talking about the occasional necessity to kick a dog in the balls. The infamous moment with The Shins songs is too short to have any true impact and the whole relationship feels like a misfire; then it works. I had forgotten how much the whole Sam persona is a smokescreen for insecurities, and while the situation where she says occasionally she like to do something “entirely original” is too much, it too has a nice button. After doing an embarrassingly annoying dance and spitting out goofy noises, Braff’s Andrew does a tiny finger gesture and Sam shakes her head and proclaims, “Oh, I’ve done that one before.” It’s rare to go from an eye-roll to a belly laugh within seconds.
Despite a few weaknesses as a leading man here, Braff is really good with Portman here. His laid back manner isn’t too relaxed and the quieter bits of dialogue he shares with Portman have a real poignancy. The aforementioned monologue by Braff no longer feeling as if he has a home is directed impressively, a slow pan on him in a pool with Portman’s head resting upon his shoulder carefully listening. Instead of a long series of two-shots where he unravels his revelation, we come in on it piece by piece, each individual represented equally.
By the time we get to The Graduate-esque ending as Frou Frou’s “Let Go” kicks into its energetic melancholy, I admit to being a bit swept up in the hype once more. There are flaws and the final act isn’t as finely honed as the early chunks. Nevertheless, Garden State and its heart-on-its-sleeve earnestness is a success. It may be a moderate one; but it is one.