Garden State’s reputation has fallen out of favor in the 18 years since its release. Zach Braff’s navel-gazing sad sack of a hero, Andrew Largeman, is a proxy for every white, privileged, twenty-something who’s too angsty to adjust to adulthood. Natalie Portman’s Sam is cinema’s peak manic pixie dream girl, a mythologically pure and whimisical and passionate quasi-human who exists to help Braff understand life better. The set design and direction are fussy, the script episodically aimless, the soundtrack the poster-child of snoozy indie rock that was inescapable in the 2000s.
There’s really no reason to like Garden State at all, except that it’s brilliant.
This movie spoke to a generation of middle-class suburbanites for a reason. As our parents over-pressured and over-medicated us, the ennui crept in. Braff hits just the right tone of heart-on-his-sleeve earnestness and goofy smirk at the absurd and stupid world around him. The film’s message, achingly and romantically built towards, is that it’s okay to feel sadness; it grounds and grows us; avoiding it shuts out every other meaningful feeling, too. (It’s basically the same point Inside Out made a decade later when we started having kids.)
In addition to Braff and Portman, Peter Sarsgaard is hilarious as the thematic counterpoint — what happens when someone insulates themselves in their whims to the point that they become toxic and pathetic. I’m glad he gets a redemptive moment at the end of the movie.
The story is, indeed, episodic, embracing and discarding characters and thoughts on a scene-by-scene basis, often with little direct purpose except to build out a larger picture of why Largeman might feel so trapped in his hometown but also so empty without it. No easy answers.
The one indefensible portion of the film is its soggy, self-serious ending that over-inflates the movie’s and protagonist’s sense of importance while leaning on a few unsatisfying, herky-jerk plot turns.
So, yeah, Garden State is easy to knock on for so many reasons, some of which are perfectly valid. It’s certainly not a film to all tastes (it’s very white and straight, for one). But for those of us who feel some connection to its themes and characters, no movie tells this story in quite the same evocative way.
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100
Very Good (6/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.