In Defense of ‘Garden State’

I think people honestly just don’t like Zach Braff’s face, and in fairness to them, it is sort of punchable. But the ever-polarizing actor’s recent Kickstarter campaign for his long-in-coming Garden State follow-up Wish I Was Here has cranked online Braff-punching up to volumes unheard in years — and in fairness to his critics, there is much to loathe about the story (more on that later). But it has also reinvigorated the narrative that Garden State, his 2004 debut film as writer/director, was a toxic piece of nuclear sludge that euthanized dogs and gave children bone cancer. Well, I’m here to tell you what 86% of critics and much of the viewing public said at the time: Garden State is a pretty good movie. In fact, it has moments of greatness.

Make no mistake: it’s an easy movie to pick apart. A repeat visit, especially from this perspective nine years hence, reveals a pretty standard alienation-and-engagement narrative, with familiar beats, go-to scenes, and stock characters. But as Roger Ebert always said, “It’s not what a movie is about, but how it is about it.” In the case of Garden State, Braff captures the specific, self-involved ennui of the aimless 20-something, and he doesn’t do it from a point of smug detachment. When you’re in the middle of this stuff, it feels like the most important thing in the world. It’s not. But that doesn’t make it any less vital.

Of course, when we look back on the concerns and drama of our 20s, it’s easy to feel shame and embarrassment — God, I took everything so seriously then, I thought I knew everything, I was so full of shit. And in a strange way, it feels like that’s what’s happened to Garden State as well. It’s very easy to view it now through a lens of sniggering contempt: the tweeness of the style, the solemnity of Braff’s performance, the self-conscious quirkiness of Natalie Portman’s now-stock character. I mean, the movie starts with a fucking Coldplay song, for Chrissakes. The only thing more embarrassing than the things we liked in our 20s is the way we felt in our 20s, and Garden State reminds us of both.

This is not to say that all of the film’s current critics have made this turnabout, or that all of those who loved the picture initially have turned against it. But the intense animosity for Garden State among the Internet Hive Mind seems fueled by something more than a simple distaste for Braff’s aesthetic, or the importance his characters place on the music of The Shins. They don’t just hate the film; they hate what it represents, maybe even the fact that it even exists.

But that acrimony is all out of proportion for what is, when you get down to it, a perfectly likable comedy/drama with some laughs, some warmth, and some truth. You don’t hear the film’s critics talk much about Peter Sarsgaard’s wonderful work as a quiet burnout, but watch the intensity with which he explains all of his “little investments,” or the way he talks about his cousin, the screenwriter (“He’s like writing a movie about snowboarders or some shit, I dunno”); movies seldom care much about people like this, who don’t do much and like their lives and don’t want to be fixed, but it’s a tricky performance, and a good one. There are complaints a-plenty about Portman’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and yes, it’s a type that’s worn out its welcome. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done well — for every squirm-inducing moment (like the sound she makes to “feel unique again,” which is, yes, obnoxious) there are three that play beautifully (dig her comic timing on that first ear-pull, or the mix of self-deprecation and dizzy humor in her insistence that, “You’re like, running for the door right now, you’re so freaked out”).

It’s a film that’s full of those pleasures: the random party guy’s reaction to Braff being an actor (“Fuck yeah, Serpico and shit! ATTICA!”), the wonderful absurdity (and blind viewer faith) of the trio’s weird errand in the third act, Braff’s speech about dealing with the pressure to cry, his floppy swimming (and the nicely timed cutaway to the rest of the pool party), that perfect little pause before Ron Liebman’s “For example,” the way Braff says “Yeah, definitely” when he means the exact opposite, the simplicity of the closing line. Those moments worked for me in 2004; they worked again in 2013, as I ran the DVD and tried to understand why this harmless indie has become such an object of derision.

Sure, some of it is precious: the sidecar motorcycle, for example, or the screaming in the rain scene, or Braff’s parting line to Denis O’Hare (c’mon, it’s got Denis O’Hare in it): “Good luck exploring in the infinite abyss.” But both the line he says back — “Hey, you too” — and the way O’Hare delivers it saves the moment, if you’re willing to go along. Watching that interchange this time around, I realized what made Garden State such an snap target now: it’s earnest, and there’s nothing on earth easier to mock than earnestness.

And perhaps it’s the earnestness of his debut film that makes Braff’s plea to Kickstarter seem so cynical, even to this Garden State Apologist™; “I promise I’ll put everything I have into it, and I won’t let you down,” he says in the pitch video, which sounds pretty rich coming from the mouth of a man who was pocketing $350K per episode on Scrubs. The idea of hitting up fans for $2 million in order to keep final cut and casting decisions away from nebulous “money men,” even though he is himself worth a reported $22 million, is downright icky. Those numbers are reason enough for cynicism about Wish I Was Here. But the idea that we should sneer at the project simply because Garden State was some kind of mutually agreed upon, Objectively Bad movie is ridiculous, and those who make that claim say more about themselves than they do about Braff.