In the summer of 2004, a few months before I entered my senior year of high school, I saw the movie Garden State for the first time.
This is almost 10 years ago now. Dubya was still in the process of running for a second term, the Iraq war was in its second year, and the iPhone was still three years away.
And along came Garden State, a little indie flick that seemed predisposed to capture the morose and whiny nature of a generation of 20-something dudes in a post-9/11 America . It was also, depending on whom you asked, the “it” movie of the summer. And it reached this status for a number of reasons. It had a trendy soundtrack (more on The Shins in a minute), a young director (Hey that’s Zach Braff from Scrubs!), and it came onto the scene as an emerging internet culture greased the skids for a more friendly atmosphere for independent movies.
So, of course, I saw the movie that summer, and to put it one way, I was down with Comrade Braff and the movement. Garden State was cool. But it was cool in a way that the bands “Grizzly Bear” or “Sufjan Stevens” are cool. It was sardonic and darkly funny and sort of depressing and also greatly ambitious. But it was all these things … while still also maintaining a level of authenticity. Maybe it was cool because Braff was just a young kid that wanted to make a movie. And he did it. Or maybe Garden State was cool, because you saw it, and the rest of your high school hadn’t. Or something like that.
So I probably watched Garden State about seven or eight times during my senior year of high school. I introduced the movie to a girl I liked, and I used it as an ‘in’ to hang out with some of the more artistically-inclined, academic over-achievers in my class. (I think this also had something to do with girls.)
I crushed hard on Natalie Portman, and thought Zach Braff was one cool dude, and I probably listened to The Shins’ song “New Slang” around 3,713 times. And one day, I even devised a scheme, using my membership in the school’s Student Council, to get a couple of my friends out of school. We went and ate lunch… and then went back to my house to watch Garden State. It was all very secretive, and very high school, I guess, like we all wanted to be cast in a John Hughes movie.
So for now, we’ll pause to explain the film’s plot, just in case you missed it.
Zach Braff plays “Andrew”, a mid 20-something actor who lives in California. The film begins with Andrew returning home to New Jersey after his mother’s death, and we soon learn three things about Braff’s character.
1.) He is overly medicated; 2.) He apparently hates his father, and 3.) This second fact stems from an incident involving his mother and a crappy dishwasher latch. (More on that in a minute) Upon returning home to New Jersey, he meets “Sam” (Natalie Portman), a local girl, at his psychologist’s office. And perhaps you can imagine what happens next. Self-aggrandizement commences. Seriousness begins.
Braff mopes his way around town, meeting all his old slacker friends from high school. And Portman, the cutest little “manic-pixie-dream girl” you ever laid eyes on, redeems our man-boy by being so cute and quirky and UNPREDICTABLE!
Looking back, Garden State has earned an 86% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Empire, the film magazine, ranked it 393 on its list of 500 Greatest Films of All Time. In short: A lot of people seem to enjoy Garden State.
So this background leads us to last week, during the July 4 weekend, when I casually stumbled upon Garden State on television. It had been a few years since I had seen it, and it seemed like a good opportunity to catch up on a film I once adored.
But after close to 20 minutes, I had an unexpected revelation: Garden State, the movie I once devoured as an 18-year-old, is utterly and gagging-ly awful.
Braff is pretty much unlikeable as our protagonist, and a pretty mediocre actor to boot. Portman is likeable enough as Sam, but her character is only partially developed, buoyed by a mostly unbelievable family story. And all the good indie music aside, the movie is mostly comprised of overly dramatic scenes, tinged with bits of ridiculousness*, and tied together by a kind-of, sort-of, beaten-to-a-bloody-bloody-pulp narrative.
Andrew is back home. And he trying to FIND HIMSELF!!!
(And hey, there’s bearded Portlandian James Mercer singing really twee songs.)
1. After Andrew and Sam meet, we go back to Sam’s house, learning that she was once a competitive ice-skater and continually buries her dead pet hamsters.
2. Andrew drives around town in one of those army motorcycles with a side car, like you might have seen in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. Andrew tells Sam that it was his grandfather’s, and he likes it. And, of course, he just looks so hipster driving that thing around town!
3. And even in one of the film’s sweeter (and more famous scenes), when Sam hands her headphones to Andrew and lets him listen to The Shins’ New Slang (“It’ll like totally change your life), the movie fails at the art of subtlety. I guess I like playing songs for people, and you should, too, but the line “It’ll totally change your life” … well, it probably made George Lucas blush.
4. Another favorite line: “I know it hurts. That’s life. If nothing else, It’s life! It’s real, and sometimes it fuckin’ hurts, but it’s sort of all we have.”
OK, so back to the film. At its core, Garden State is a movie about wandering 20-somethings, and going home, and it’s an admirable idea. Going home while you’re in your 20s can be fucking weird. Seeing people from high school. Being back in the same neighborhoods. It’s all very odd.
But the plot of Garden State stubs its toe on the most intense of plot devices. Let’s pull on the loose thread and unravel this: Andrew’s mother has died. And that’s because she drowned in the bathtub. And she drowned in the bathtube because she was a paraplegic. And she was a paraplegic because Andrew once pushed her backward during a momentary fight when he was a kid, and she fell backward over the dishwasher, which had a broken latch, and Andrew’s dad put him on pills, and now he’s numb … and at this point, couldn’t Zach Braff have made the same movie without such a weirdly specific (and sort of distracting) backstory?
There are other reasons to hate Garden State, of course. It crystallized a certain character: Morose. Twee. 20-something. And it made sadness and desperation a venerable trait for those that came of age in the Bush years. But I guess that’s OK.
I’m not the first to remark on its failings. And maybe the movie didn’t quite suck that much. Maybe it didn’t change at all. Maybe a generation of kids just grew up.
Earlier this year, Braff set out to raise money for a quasi-sequel, a movie with the working title “Wish I Was Here.” He created a Kickstarter, and in four days, the project raised $2 million in pledges. (At the time of this blog, it’s raised more than $3 million with more than 46,000 backers.)
According to Braff, the movie is about Aidan Bloom (The ultimate Aussie name, by the way), “a struggling actor, father and husband, who at 35 is still trying to find his identity; a purpose for his life. He and his wife are barely getting by financially and Aidan passes his time by fantasizing about being the great futuristic Space-Knight he’d always dreamed he’d be as a little kid.”
Well, OK. Maybe we’ll at least get some new songs from James Mercer.