Yesterday, I went to see Garden State at the Kendall. While the film was by no means perfect, it was definitely worthwhile, particularly at matinee prices, and you should go see it if you can. I would probably be singing this film’s praises if it weren’t for the fact that the otherwise good writing and dialogue seemed to fall apart during the most crucial moments in the story. I noticed three places in particular where writer/director/star Zach Braff fell into the trap of the too-easy: the scene in the quarry, the father/son conversation, and the ending.
Before I delve into it: a bit of a prologue. Braff plays an aspiring LA actor who returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral and reconnects with family and friends for the first time in nine years. He meets Natalie Portman’s character and a romantic plot parallels this journey of self-discovery (which takes place over about four days). Secrets about Braff and Portman are gradually revealed: family tragedy and dysfunction, health and emotional problems, feelings about life, &c. As you can see, we’re looking at a story which could easily be simply boring and cheesy and very run-of-the-mill. Fortunately, Braff is full of talent, and manages to pull it off for the most part, with the exception of the parts I mentioned before.
[I’d recommend seeing the movie before reading the rest; I don’t really spoil it as such, but I talk about some important scenes and the ending, so if I were reading this, I’d want to have seen the film first.]
The quarry scene — the emotional centerpiece of the film, the intended “turning point” for the main character — falls short of being really affecting because it suddenly becomes too obvious. Until that scene, the movie was, for me, treading a fine line between generic twentysomething angst and inspired filmmaking, but the ark metaphor, the happy couple, the suddenly cheesy dialogue about love and “exploring the infinite abyss” brought that crashing down.
I won’t lie to you: I started crying at this point, but my tears were triggered by the inspired use of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ to end the scene in the rain atop the construction equipment; and they came as a surprise, as moments before I’d been shaking my head at how the film had missed its mark at so crucial a moment. But there’s one big bit of praise for you: the music in this film is really well chosen and well delivered. It’s one area where Braff successfully walked the ridgepole between the innovative and the hackneyed: the movie is chock-full of pop tunes which, if not done right, might have really undermined what he was trying to do. Fortunately, it just works.
The scene with Braff and his father, played by Ian Holm, also falls prey to some easy dialogue. It’s a scene which should be really important, but which somehow falls into the background, perhaps because of the film’s emphasis on the romantic plot as the savior-of-all, and perhaps because the scene itself is so short. I think I was looking for more from Holm’s character, who in the story must be way more complex than is ever shown. I wanted to see that complexity played out in a much more involved scene between father and son, but it didn’t happen. The scene isn’t bad by any means, but it’s another place where the film could have become really great and fell short.
Braff had a chance to save it one last time at the end, but that’s the part that really took a dive into the easy resolution of some date-movie drama. All throughout the conversation on the steps between Braff and Portman, I was praying he would carry it off wisely and not give in to the happy ending. Suffice it to say I was disappointed.
All that said, there were some really wonderful scenes and moments in the film: some amazing shots at the beginning that succeeded in setting the mood supremely, a believable amount of life-is-weirdness, a touching scene in which Braff hugs Portman’s mom. I’d definitely recommend the film, if for no other reason than that it made me want to go home and write a screenplay. I’ll definitely be there for Braff’s next venture, fingers crossed that he nails the important stuff this time. I have a feeling he just might.