Why Do Moviegoers Like Garden State So Much?

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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  • Martin

    Here’s what Knute Berger of the Seattle Weekly said about What the Bleep.

  • Levi Nunnink

    Ah, the ol’ double standard. “I can absolutely say that there are no absolutes.”

  • Anonymous

    Jeff, thank you so much for posting this. After seeing ‘Garden State’ a few weeks ago, I’ve been feeling terribly lonely as well on my thoughts about it. Nearly every review I’ve read (and every person I’ve talked to) loves the film, and whenever I try to articulate just what it was that frustrated me about the “Hallmark card” moments and Portman’s character, it never comes out clearly.

    Imagine my surprise when I decided to browse your blog and found this entry, which is perfectly identical to my own thoughts about the film. Everything you’ve said about ‘Garden State’ I agree with 100%, and it’s a rare thing for me to say that about a movie review. You made your arguments readable and easy to understand, without falling into the temptation to simply mock the film without explaining your reasons.

    Keep writing! You’re not alone in your opinions.

    Jeremy Nyhuis

  • Mark Kodak

    I was afraid it would be like a redux of Dead Poets and Good Will Hunting .. . . might still see it though.

    Thank You for your ever prolix and stimulating reviews. . .

  • Anonymous

    First, thank you for your Looking Closer web site and journal. I enjoy and benefit from your comments about movies, music and books.

    In answer to your question, “Why do moviegoers like Garden State so much?” I’d like to answer your question and then comment about how your comments in this blog helped define why I liked it.

    I fell in love with the movies as a teenager some 25 to 30 years ago, and there was a time when I saw most every movie that I had any interest in. I fell upon an occasional surprise that way… I can remember going with my wife to see Body Heat (William Hurt, Kathleen Turner). We were both slightly embarrassed because it had been promoted to look like soft-porn, though there was little promotion. It turned out to be a great little suspense thriller, that was relatively discreet with its eroticism. Anyway, when you enjoy movies and you’ve seen enough of them you begin to want something more than fluff (ie., pop culture, sentimentality, lots of pretty people that look just right, etc.), though quite honestly it was mostly fluff that drew your interest in the first place. What is enjoyable about Garden State and American Beauty (I agree with your comparison there) is that they stretch a little beyond the fluff. They are movies that are mainstream enough to draw a large audience, but serious enough to make people believe they’ve seen something deep. I liked both of those movies in part for that reason. They both attemp to do more than just entertain. The reason they both fall short is because when you examine the depth more closely (as you have done), you see that they are a bit hollow.

    Again, thanks for your work. It helps me enjoy the movies even more.

    A Regular Reader
    Jim McGee

  • Jessica

    Ka-ZOINKS! Are we dealing with a potential case of hype poisoning? It’s late, and I don’t have the energy to respond to each of your points about the film, although I could. (We are in agreement on a few things, including the Ian Holm character). I’ll say two things: One, I was getting worried about the way the film was going until Natalie Portman appeared. From then on, the whole thing lit up. And two, the ending of the film was, if not original, at least unexpected. The more indulgent and crappy thing would have been to have Largemen just leave, changed “inside.” Instead, we see characters struggling with the fact that everything has changed for both of them, but they still have to drive home from the airport and figure out what to do with themselves. Overwhelming uncertainty with a healthy dose of fear. A talky version of The Graduate ending I suppose. And I liked it, it felt interestingly honest.

    Overall, I liked hanging out with this movie. Its establishment of mood had echoes of Lost in Translation to it, though LIT was a much more sophisticated and satisfying film. I do wonder, however, if Mr. Braff has another movie in him. It will be interesting to find out.


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