Saturday, September 13, 2014

Movie Buff: A Spoiler-iffic review of Garden State

It's not quite a dead blog, but the pieces are few and far between, ain't they? Well, so it goes, for now.

Review of the movie Garden State, after the break.

Like, I imagine, a lot of people, I know Zach Braff as the lead of Scrubs, which means I tend to think of him as a kind of manic man-child (typecasting is cruel). But as the lead, director, and writer of Garden State, he plays Andrew Largeman, the sad clown to JD's happy clown. After a childhood accident, Largeman's spent most of his life isolated and numb, not to mention heavily medicated. But when he receives word his mother died, he returns to his home town to... well, there's two ways to finish the sentence, and it's either matter of fact, or movie-drama. He comes back to go to his mother's funeral. But he also comes back to START LIVING HIS LIFE and FACE WHAT HE LEFT BEHIND.

As someone from a slowly dying rural town, depressing home comings hit me right in my nostalgia-bleak spot. And Garden State nails that. It's not quite as nihilist as, say Young Adult, but it's still a particularly dark shade of black comedy. Largeman's father resents the fact that his son has rejected him, as both his father and his psychiatrist (and there's a red flag). His best friends--whom he hasn't seen in nine years--are in less than ideal shape; Jesse (Armando Riesco) earned a fortune for selling his silent Velcro idea, but admits his life is basically meaningless. Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) is a grave digger who lives with his mom, who also happens to be dating a guy from his high school (it's Jim Parson from Big Bang Theory, and they all hang out in a hilariously awkward and hostile breakfast scene). Andrew wanders a bit before running into Natalie Portman, as Sam an eccentric epileptic and compulsive liar who lives with her mother and the African sibling Titembay, who came to live with them when he came to America because they were his "sponsor a kid for pennies a day" sponsors (yeah, it's that kind of movie).

If nothing else, the movie shows that Braff is capable of writing and directing a reasonably decent movie--I won't comment on the acting, because, well, the script doesn't really provide a huge range for him on that score; he nails emotionless, so... that's good? The plot meanders a bit--Andrew gets more emotionally intimate with Sam, and there's a long quest that Mark pushes them on which just manages to stay on the right side of farce with a touch of magical realism thrown in. It's basically a rom-com with a lot of indie mumbleporn style type stuff added on top so that you don't notice the rom-com part so much. Portman's character feels kind of manic pixie dream girl. For example, after an emotionally intense revelation from Largeman, she deflates the tension with a "Do you want to see me tap dance?". Out of all the characters in the film, Braff's is really the only one that gets anything really resembling an arc, and the rest are depressing yet quirky background.

But at the same time, I feel like it's unfair to fault the film too much for that--it came out in 2003, which puts it long before manic pixie dream girls was coined as phrase, and before the mumblecore indie scene turned films like this into an almost by-the-numbers affair. I liked the movie. It' wasn't laugh out loud funny, but it isn't supposed to be. If I had a complaint, it's that the film never quite makes the same journey its lead does. Largeman may go from emotionally distant and darkly strange to something more joyful, but--despite some Herculean efforts--the film doesn't quite make the same trip.

Still, I don't regret watching it. After all, how often do you see Jim Parson dress up in a ridiculous nerd costume? (Answer: once a week, on CBS)

Later Days.

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