Spurred on by positive reviews, I spent Sunday afternoon at a matinee of Garden State, and when it was over, I drove home trying to figure out what all the fuss is about. I didn’t walk away thinking “Awful.” I just kinda went, “Eh. Well. Okay. Saw that movie.”

I know this film meant a lot to some folks, and there are enough soul-searching moments in it that I’m sure some of them really spoke to people.

But to me, it didn’t work as a film.

Garden State felt like the first feature film made by a young man who really, really likes The Graduate and who has access to a good cast. As far as that goes, sure, Zach Braff shows some promise. But there’s a lot of room for improvement.

First, the good stuff:

  • Garden State has some nice, if predictable, cinematography.
  • Zach Braff did a fine job in the title role as Andrew Largeman.
  • Natalie Portman is so easy to watch.
  • And Peter Sarsgaard is always interesting, even if he just seems like, well, Peter Sarsgaard in this film.
  • There’s a gag with a guy dressed as a knight that made me chuckle.
  • I liked the general leaning toward optimism and the “don’t numb yourself to feeling” theme.

But overall, the film felt as disposable as one of those emo/alt-pop songs that gets played to death on the radio. Something in which the music announces that this is an emotional song, but the story never really earns the emotion that’s swelling all around it.

And the overriding theme– the “chorus,” if you will–was disappointing. “If this is all we’ve got, let’s enjoy it.” Sheesh. How uninspiring. Doesn’t sound like much more than “seize the day” or the American Beauty “beauty of the plastic dancing bag” thing.

And speaking of emo/alt-rock songs… There’s problem #1. Each scene opened with, and closed with, a just-above-mediocre moody alt-rock/emo song, something that played just long enough for us to notice that the selected lyrics applied in some general way to what was going on. This is a device that’s becoming too common. It didn’t bother me with Good Will Hunting, because the music was pretty much all by one guy, and it set a tone, much like the Simon and Garfunkel songs did in The Graduate. But Braff gets too DJ-happy, like Cameron Crowe at his most indulgent… so busy formulating a great mix-disc soundtrack that it distracts from the whole. Unless a director shows incredible creativity in his song-selection, or picks songs that enhance the scenes by creating an interesting tension (the way Tarantino’s brilliant “There Must Something About Her” sequence works in KB2), then it just seems like laziness on the part of the filmmaker. It seems Braff doesn’t trust the scene to evoke enough emotion as it is, so he’s got to find music that does it for him.

There definitely shouldn’t have been a pop song playing over the “barbaric yawp” moment of the film–if any moment in this film demanded that the music get turned down, it was that one!

So, the song-thing was worn out by halfway through the film.

Problem #2: Each of these pop-song-framed scenes were all rather talky, and yet there were very few that came across as convincing conversations. Each one contains some kind of epiphany, or metaphor, or meaningful moment … observations about life that were sometimes little more than a Hallmark card sentiment. I just grew weary of it. And I don’t mind talky movies… I just thought the parade of little gem conversations grew wearying and felt rather haphazard. Most movies build to a handful of scenes like those. Garden State is built out of them.

The only variation occurs when a character takes time exhibiting his or her quirkiness, which sometimes is mildly amusing and sometimes feels forced. Wes Anderson’s characters are quirky, but they exist in Wes Anderson World, a hyper-stylized kind of cartoonland as unique as the world of The Addams Family. The Coens’ characters are quirky in a specifically Coen way; that’s why you can recognize a Coen Brothers film at 100 yards. These characters were just, well, sorta quirky.

Two other things kept me from believing in the film:

One, the final confrontation with dad. For one thing, Ian Holm is as convincing as Braff’s father as Ian McKellan would be playing Jack Black’s father. Furthermore, we’re not at all prepared for this confrontation. Dad only appears in the film on a couple of other occasions, and makes only a faint impression when he appears. Thus, I had no emotional response to this closing conversation, despite the film’s insistence that I get all teary-eyed. It just felt like the main character having yet another touchy-feelie moment.

And the last thing–Portman’s character, Sam. Let me explain by comparing Sam to Lena, the character played by Emily Watson in Punch-drunk Love.

Some folks have trouble buying Lena, saying that she’s too “ideal,” and that she seems to drop into Barry Egan’s life in an implausibly convenient fashion. I argue with this because a) she has a history that is hinted at, and b ) because she’s not cover-girl-gorgeous like Portman’s Sam, and thus she seems like she really could be that lonely and that willing to take a risk on somebody like Barry, and c) because she’s not automatically in love with Barry and ready to follow him everywhere and gush at his every thought. She tests him. She has standards.

Lena is a solid, believable character who is only somewhat quirky. Sam, on the other hand, is a barrage of quirks and very little else.

Sam seems like the kind of girl I and many other guys would dream about meeting in the highschool-to-college years…. someone who will fall for you at first sight, who will beam beautifully at you whatever you say, who will cradle your head when you’re filled with angst, and who will be just quirky enough to be sexy. The problem is that this is a rather self-absorbed fantasy. For a relationship to work, it’s got to be about more than fixing, appreciating, loving, and bearing with the guy. It’s got to be about her too. And while Sam is fun to watch, I didn’t ever believe in her.

I’d also argue that Portman was miscast here, in spite of the fact that I really enjoyed watching her play this part. Portman’s as glamorous as Brooke Shields, and I don’t believe for a moment that she’d be able to move around in this guy’s world without other guys lining up around the block. Sam’s a head-turner. There’s no way she could crash into Largeman’s life without making him spend several days bewildered at his good fortune. His friends would be nudging him and saying, “Where did you find a girl like that?!” Instead, everybody acts as if this is perfectly normal.

Strange that she seems to show no signs of having had other relationships with guys. And that in a community where everybody seems to know everybody, nobody has ever seen her before. Because this all seemed so bizarre and unlikely, I fully expected to find out that Sam was just a hallucination, brought on by Largeman’s drug withdrawl. She seems made-to-order, ready to do anything for him far too quickly.

And then there’s that last scene. Oh dear. The last scene between the two of them is a romantic wrap-up I’ve seen far too many times before. It played far more effectively in the last episode of Friends, even though that was just as predictable. When it came, I hoped it would play out some other way, but I was quite surprised at how it followed the formula without any attempt to do anything creative with it at all.

I realize I sound like I’m just complaining… If I really hated the film, I wouldn’t spend the energy to catalogue the things that kept kicking me out of the film. There was enough promise here, enough talent, enough good ideas, to make a good film. As it is, I think it’s a nearly-good film, and that’s the kind of thing that sets me ranting, because I can almost taste what it could have been.

Did you like Garden State? If so, try to change my mind. On the subject of this film, I’m so terribly lonely.

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