Project Valentine, Day 6: Garden State


I am seriously fighting off sleep in order to write this tonight, so we'll see how it goes.  The second movie in our Manic Pixie Dream Girls block is Garden State, the very movie that originally inspired the creation of the term MPDG.  I feel like I should tread carefully, because this is one of those movies that people seem to get really passionate about.  I'll sum up my judgment this way - it succeeds and it fails, both in glorious fashion.

Zach Braff plays an aspiring actor in LA who is called home to New Jersey when his mother dies.  His father, a psychiatrist, has kept him on a regimen of antidepressant drugs for most of his life, leaving him feeling detached and unhappy.  While he is home, he meets a girl (played by Natalie Portman) who makes him want to experience life again, and who he falls in love with.

That's a very quick, bare-bones outline of the plot, and as I mentioned, it both succeeds and fails.  First, the success.  I am blessed never to have experienced clinical depression, but have been very close to some individuals who have.  Several years ago, one of them showed up on my doorstep in tears one evening.  I asked him in, and as we talked, I learned that he was trying to go off of his medications after many years on them.  He knew that it was a dangerous move, but he said that he felt like he had spent the last decade of his life living behind a veil, never really experiencing anything, just watching somebody who he knew was him going through the motions of life.  Watching Zach Braff in this movie, that is exactly the feeling that is evoked, somebody who is trying very hard to reclaim the ability to feel.

Unfortunately, I think that the success in creating a mood comes at the expense of the story and dialogue, and that's where we get to the failure - Natalie Portman.  I don't like to say that, because I really like her and enjoy her work, but she is just unbearable in this movie.  You know what?  Here's a quote from one of the articles I linked yesterday that sums it up pretty well.
I hated that character from the second she flounced on the screen. I remember distinctly Portman telling Zach Braff's character that she was "weird" and then doing a silly little dance to illustrate her "weirdness." Honestly? Anyone who telegraphs their so-called weirdness so outlandishly is not actually weird, they're merely quirky enough to be vaguely interesting without having their own thing going on. They're completely mainstream but have one really big tattoo, or occasionally sing really loud in the shower! "Oh, Natalie," the A.V. Club writes, "your unconventional ways are so inspiring, and your beauty is surprisingly non-threatening!"
I know I'm in no position to denounce quirk - I love Wes Anderson's movies, for crying out loud.  The difference, though, is that in each of his films, he crafts an entire, carefully designed world that his characters' quirks are a natural part of.  We, the audience, know that the people we are watching are not normal, but in the world they live in, they make complete sense.  He earns the quirk.  Garden State does not earn the quirk.  You can't just take a girl, make her say ridiculous stuff like "This song'll change your life, I swear," to a perfect stranger, or "OK, so... so... sometimes I lie. I mean, I'm weird, man. About random stuff too, I don't even know why I do it. It's like... it's like a tick, I mean sometimes I hear myself say something and think, Wow, that wasn't even remotely true," and expect us to accept that she is a real part of anybody's world.  The only thing I can think of as a plus to her character is that if, like Braff's character, you were struggling to feel something again, it may be useful to have somebody around who annoys the shit out of you.
RATING - Clearly, we are supposed to love Portman's character, but even though I didn't, I still found parts of the movie to enjoy, particularly Peter Sarsgaard's performance.  I give it three LaughyBraffs out of five.
LESSON - Ah, I've got nothin' tonight.


Anonymous said...

I think Manic Pixie Dream Girl, as a term, predated this movie, but I could be wrong.

I was struck most about Sarsgaard's brooding acting take when I watched this. I really thought he was going to slam thru to mainstream recognition, but he's kind of kept under the radar. But he gives this movie a lot of weight that even Ian Holm can't give. (I do think Braff succeeds for his part.)

There are a lot of points of strain in this movie -- the overly elaborate hamster habitrail cages, for instance.

The melancholy of the score and the characters' situations really drive this movie for me, despite its problems. It managed to capture a sense of helpless malaise of its era, for me: that you felt you should be capable of things (stopping a war, for example), but somehow had no ability to do so. It's what it is to feel depressed.


Danny said...

Eric, you always manage to capture in a few succinct paragraphs what I ramble on forever without fully capturing. You mention Ian Holm, and it surprised me how little they used him. I mean, I guess he's not a marquee name, but he's a fantastic actor, and is barely onscreen.

I didn't mention this scene in the review, but I really did like the scene where they visit the "Ark" at the quarry to get the necklace. They've been on this seemingly futile goose chase all day long, and they're caught in the rain, and then they get invited in to this warm, secure space where they are greeted by a happy nuclear family. It's like this little germ of hope and wonderfulness that pulls you out of the depression.

Will Meekin said...

Re-watching "Beautiful Girls" recently it occurred to me (brace yourself, heresy follows) that Natalie Portman may only be as good as the script she's reciting. So smooth you don't notice it-actors can speak the most wooden dialogue with a smoothness that makes you forget how on-the-nose the screenwriter's work really is. But in "Beautiful Girls," "Garden State," and the execrable first three "Star Wars" chapters Portman is a marionette, carved from wood, an oddly disturbing grin fixed on her pixie face, spinning and twisting on her strings.

Will Meekin said...

But I still love her so.

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