Innocent Hearts. Even More Innocent Heads

garden2One of the most loathsome movie-going experiences at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, Garden State, a vulgar, self-consciously quirky fiasco written, directed by, and starring Zach Braff, has now been excreted upon the cinema at large. As also pertains in the wretched, offensive, and Satanically unfunny Napoleon Dynamite, another Sundance acquired bomb foisted on the public by Fox Searchlight this summer, Garden State’s humor, an assaultive blend of slight rudeness, deadpan tone, and maudlin, gooey crap, revolves entirely around how stupid people are, how ridiculous they appear in contrived situations. Ahh, the good old United States of America.

I’m not surprised that audiences of rudderless 20-nothings are lapping this film up like so much spilled Hamm’s; what’s (mildly) surprising is that critics are fertilizing Garden State with laudatory manure.

Ed Park, in the Village Voice, speaks of the movie as a “triple-threat debut.” This is the same Ed Park who brutally dismissed Burr Steers’ brilliant Igby Goes Down. Park continues adoringly: “Braff’s naïve romanticism is…lovely proof of the film’s innocent heart.” Romantic, lovely, and innocent aren’t words I’d use to describe the gratuitously profane Garden State, although the cinematographer Lawrence Sher does treat us to an impressively composed aerial shot of an hourglass-shaped swimming pool. I can see, however, why cookie cutter, self-styled alt-weekly cynics (the intellectually, emotionally stunted boy-men who know everything, yet know nothing) would fall hard for this. Braff’s on-screen persona isn’t far from theirs, or from their fantasies of themselves either: he’s a nerdy cupcake who gets the girl, and Braff, despite all the postmodern irony in his corner, has no qualms about ending the movie with a dumb, standard issue genre cop-out of a couple bidding farewell at the airport, and then one of them misses the flight on purpose because of “true love.”

zbraffBesides serving such an outrageously stale cliché as if it were freshly baked, Garden State will undoubtedly fill some secret, psychological needs in viewers fixated on a boy’s fantasy of maiming and killing his mother, or on parents who quash the life out of their progeny. The disingenuous Braff, who has cast himself as a slightly stoned, over-medicated sweetboy, doesn’t skimp on close-ups of his nice, white teeth and full, chewy red lips. He’s a virtuous angel on lithium, don’t you see, a polite disguise for a scenarist obsessed with gags (promised, though never delivered) relating to canine genitalia.

Everyone constantly underlines everything, as in a sitcom. Example: the shrill Natalie Portman, in a puny teenybopper role, informs Braff, “This is the point in the conversation where you offer me a ride home.” Another example: the 20-nothing male caricatures who populate this film, a bunch of coke-snorting, grave-robbing morons, repeatedly exclaim, “Holy shit!” in lieu of anything else to say. After 40 or so minutes, I tuned them out and waited for it to be over. By the end, when false epiphanies lift Braff’s lithium haze to unveil a touchy-feely, self-help affirmation spouting goon, and he stands atop a quarry so gosh darn happy to be alive, while Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” blares on the soundtrack (a tune also heard, to much better advantage, in the sweet and excellent Tadpole), I knew I preferred our protagonist as a numbed pill-popper.

The movie wastes Ian Holm as Braff’s in-denial dad, and Peter Sarsgaard, who was above average in Shattered Glass, plays a glum, doughy, bong-dependent lowlife with such physical conviction that you receive an indelible sense of how bad he must smell. — NPT

August 1, 2004