Post Millennial Malaise 05: Garden State

In Which We Explore The Infinite Abyss

This week I am going to propose a hypothesis.

Let’s call it the quirk equation. A way to to quantify certain cinematic entries that use cutesy affectation, or twee-ness, to attain their goals. I believe they are operating on this premise. Using said affectation these stories build up a barrier, a film that purposefully keeps a viewer at a distance. Whether it be through stylized visuals, writing, or sound choices. This remove creates a sense in the viewer to want to get closer, to penetrate past a wall being deliberately put up to engage on a deeper emotional level. The quirk will deny this access, until, all of a sudden, it doesn’t any more. The bubble will be popped by sincerity, or genuine emotions of some kind. Because the viewer has been held at a remove for so long this switch to closeness will be heightened. Bigger and grander and more resonant than if things were played straight.

Certainly this isn’t the case for all movies that stroll the streets of deliberate aesthetic choices, but this does seem to be the operating principle for many of the main arbiters cinematic eccentricity. It was well demonstrated by last week’s The Royal Tenenbaums, and is found in many of Wes Anderson’s influences. One can’t help but feel the same MO pushing forward Hal Ashby projects like Being There and Harold & Maude. It’s also undeniably the emotional engine that powers Zach Braff’s 2004 directorial debut Garden State.

Garden State is a bit of an odd duck in the canon of successful indie films. It was a Sundance smash that actually made it to sea level in tact and managed to turn a healthy profit on a relatively small budget. It raised the profile of a comedic star who was mostly relegated to a then niche sitcom, and it provided an outlet for a major movie presence to work outside of the tight and controlled world of big budget blockbusters. Its reception at the time wasn’t rapturous, but warm, and it seemed to prove that an Andersonian aping title could be a hit outside of the film fest bubble.

Yet out of the many films that we will cover in this series, none has had quite the reputation sink as Garden State. What was once a charming little romantic dramedy has now become a stain on the quirk industrial complex. A movie whose style and content now grate more than charm, and with each passing year the elements that moved people back in ’04 turn to hacky cliche. I think the initial reception was in part propelled by the luck of the cultural trends that Braff and company were able to surf.

I mentioned last week that The Royal Tenenbaums presaged a sort of twee-ification of the indie scene. Not that traces of affect were ever absent from the realm, but that it became a dominating force as the 2000’s progressed. If I were to diagnosis why in a broad/sweeping statement that is probably untrue in some places, I would say it’s because controlled, affected, and mannered style of Anderson and Braff became the counter to the loud, dumb, and abrasive world of the Bush era.

If one was looking for an outlet to vent about the current state of the world in 2004 one might try to seek the opposite of the loud, clangorous, and cruel stylings of politics of the time. To find a form of resistance in exerting control and pulling out odd or eccentric points to counteract an aggressive world of jingoistic numbness. It makes sense that Garden State includes many tunes by such indie darlings like The Shins or classic cult acts like Nick Drake. These were the sounds that served in opposition to what was the cultural mainstream of the time.

Still Braff is working with the above equation, and it’s a tricky thing, because if  one misapplies the elements you’ll end up with an unbalanced result. One that leans too much into affectation or treacly sentimentality. That’s where Braff goes awry, he’s mixed up the formula, and the result is something that has aged like milk on the counter. What once may have be sweet or rich is now bitter and sour.

Here the story concerns Andrew Largeman (Braff), a down on his luck actor in LA who stumbles through life on a host of anti-depressants. One day he gets a call from his father (Ian Holm) requesting a return to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. While there he bums around with an old friend in Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and stumbles upon the cutesy Sam (Natalie Portman) whom he quickly strikes up a relationship with. Through the short time on his return trip he swiftly falls in love with Sam, tries to restructure his friendship with Mark, reconcile with his father, and kick his anti-depressents to finally feel life again. All scored to the tunes of a carefully curated lists of classic and contemporary songs.

Before the score of withering barbs comes down let me say, I do get the accolades that accompanied the movie during its original release, even if I don’t agree with hindsight. For as much as there is to clown, there’s obvious care and consideration put into this project. Braff proves to be an able hand behind the camera, constructing engaging images that are textured in different ways. Yes there’s plenty of Anderson-esque symmetry, but Braff brings a few different tics as well, including fast motion, quick cutting, and image splitting rarely seen in Anderson’s work.

For as much bemoaning as I will do on Portman, it is a relief to see her play a character that can at least express outward emotionality after the rather dreary turn she had to give in the Star Wars films. Even if she doesn’t feel like a totally real person, her performance is of a character that is thought through. And there are a raft of great character actors populating the corners  of the screen (Holm, Jean Smart, and Ann Dowd to name a few). And yes, even the now much mocked Grammy winning soundtrack is filled with excellent pieces of music for one making a playlist in the early days of the iPod.

But all these factors still don’t paper over that Braff’s voice can’t actually nail the tone he’s going for here. The affected world he seeks to build doesn’t properly straddle the line between cute and cloying, the punctures of genuine emotion are smoothened in sentimentality that is far too clean cut, and much of the humor used to build the film feels positively retrograde seventeen years down the line. Many of the jokes used to establish the base reality are too harsh that when they relent into sincerity they feel overly cruel when deployed. There’s an insensitivity to the world that sees others as humorous in and of themselves. Like Sam’s adopted African brother, who’s supposed to be funny because he’s from another culture.

Indeed there’s a stink of condescension all over the film. I think most highlighted by the supposed meet cute between Andrew and Sam. It’s arguably the most famous scene in the whole flick, the moment when The Shins changed Andrew’s life. But before those pivotal headphones go over his head we have to listen to good solid two minute bit of Sam making jokes about Andrew playing “retarded” characters. It’s something that completely slipped my mind, but is shocking with how carelessly Braff and Portman through around that phrase and the inelegance with which the joke is supposed to land. If anything is a reminder of the coarseness of the mid aughts, it’s the flagrant waving in the face of things like “retard” or Titemby,  catching jokes from people’s inherent beings.

This stink also clings to Portman. Though this isn’t the specific movie that helped coin the phrase of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, it fits the mold to a t. For Sam swoops in to rescue Andrew from his emotional problems with her wacky traits and skewed worldview. What else can be used to describe her cutesy pet cemetery and penchant for “doing something that has never been done before.” It’s a cliche that has been so battered into viewers over the last twenty years that it is incredibly difficult to forgive, even in a more nascent form.

These soon to be overly trodden cliches pop up everywhere. There’s the airport ending. A cathartic scream that helps resolve Andrew’s emotional stuntedness, hell there’s even a kiss in the rain. Can’t have a pixie girl without calling to mind Breakfast at Tiffany’s. There’s even the insidious implications of Andrew’s use of anti-depressents, which the movie seems to condemn completely with little nuance on how people with mental illness should properly medicate, but such blithe dismissal is part and parcel with a film that tries to pull big and obvious lessons from its story.

All of these things helped transform the genuine positive reception that Garden State enjoyed at its release to the full blown punching bag that is scene as today. I wondered if this revisit would change my mind, but the points against it still stand. In the sea twee-totalling entries it falls victim to the danger of plumbing these cultural depths. It’s both too affected to be taken seriously and too saccharine to be enjoyed as a pure bitter pill. In all considered worlds it has messed the formula needed to properly deploy quirk.

Odds and Ends

  • It’s hard to state how much this did to boost the profile of The Shins, who went from well liked indie act to chart toppers through the exposure generated by this film. Kind of wild to consider, and it’s hard to think of a recent movie that has had a similar impact.
  • Which is also an unfortunate burden to put on The Shins, whose tuneful retro inflected rock is very good, but can’t really lift changing one’s life.
  • Braff’s public persona also took a weird turn. It’s arguably highest here, but with the confounding conclusion to Scrubs, his eventual turn to Kickstarter for his second feature, and a penchant for dating women half his age it is inarguable that he gives off a weird vibe.
  • On the other hand it’s undeniable that this film was a boon for Portman. No matter how mawkish her character actually is. It demonstrated that she had viability beyond the world of Star Wars. I won’t go as far to say that it saved her from a rut of a kind, but it allowed her to work on a broader array of projects down the road.
  • A surprising name to pop up in the credits as a producer is Danny Devito, but his work in the indie world in that role is quite impressive. His name appears on such touchstones like Pulp Fiction, Out of Sight, and Reality Bites.

Next Week: It’s Wahlberg V. Walmart as we discover the wild world of I Heart Huckabees