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  Packaged Goods
Garden State
Dir. Zach Braff, U.S., Fox Searchlight/Miramax

Zach Braff’s directorial debut Garden State is such a sincere, sweet-natured picture that you almost feel guilty for disliking it. It seems insensitive and cynical to call such a seemingly harmless movie crass and formulaic. Screened in competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight and Miramax, Garden State carries the cinematic equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Indiewood movies with this prefab Sundance buzz hearken back to the glory days of Miramax before it mostly started releasing desperate, extravagant Oscar bait. Braff’s movie, of little substance and much appeal to the bourgeoisie of cinephilia, fails despite its good intentions, an edgy movie with no edges and, therefore, inoffensive to the middlebrow culture that fuels the demand for indie movies from quasi-Hollywood distribution companies. As it’s come to pass, independent cinema is the last place you would look to in this cultural climate for radical commentary. The true space for subversive readings of contemporary culture has become cable television, which unapologetically attacks the very censors that control it, and challenges our sensibilities rather than placate us with tender nothings. I’m thinking of progressive series like Chappelle’s Show, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, The Daily Show, Sealab 2021, Da Ali G Show, Penn and Teller: Bullshit!, Reno 911, or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Hell, even The Best Week Ever on VH1, with its weblink immediacy, better addresses the way we live now. Let’s face it: American movies seem increasingly behind the times, while other media are directly addressing the absurdity of contemporary life.

Garden State is the tired redemption story of Andrew Largeman (Braff), a nobody Hollywood actor who returns from Los Angeles to his New Jersey hometown after nine years to attend his mother’s funeral. Largeman is most famous for his portrayal of a retarded football player. (By the way, did anyone without an extra chromosome see Radio?) Braff has replaced the confused, wanting adolescent from years of rites-of-passage films with a mid-twenties guy so jaded that he is practically neutered. It’s essentially “You Can’t Go Home Again” again, derivative and universal yet mildly amusing enough that you almost want to forgive the lame profundities it offers up as truths.

Braff does have a fantastic eye for visual gags—the gas pump protruding from Andrew’s car accidentally ripped away from the station, his shirt cascading into a matching floral pattern of wallpaper, a neurologist’s wall of commendations and plaques that stretches onto the ceiling. Yet this film has such a cultivated heir of quirkiness that it feels forced and disingenuous, much like the ironic, warbly rendition of “Three Times a Lady” sung at the mother’s funeral. And talk about eccentric: One character, introduced (never to be seen again) adorned in full knight’s armor eating cereal at the breakfast table, works at a medieval-themed restaurant, speaks Klingon, and is having an affair with a woman twice his age; another invents a form of silent Velcro, now lives in a nearly vacant mansion, and loves to shoot flaming arrows into the air; a police officer who pulls over Andrew we soon discover was last seen years before doing coke lines off a urinal. Braff’s supposed talent for the absurd lurking behind the pall of the mundane soon becomes nothing more than cheap conceit.

Even the main characters are mostly collections of superficial quirks: Andrew is a failed actor who accidentally paralyzed his mother as a child; Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), his old high school friend (we learn nothing about their relationship when they were younger) is a grave robber/drug dealer/scam artist; Sam (Natalie Portman), the prospective love interest, is a pathological liar/epileptic. These are characters not to identify with but to feel sorry for—perhaps even feel superior to. Portman, an unrestrained performer hardly capable of standing still, much less emoting properly, here finds a role tailor made to her spastic awkwardness. Sam functions as the “free spirit” whose love gives Andrew the confidence to truly lead his life again (even typing these words makes me cringe). Among her suggestions: make silly faces and convulsive noises; that way you’re truly unique. And Andrew’s father, played by Ian Holm (struggling even with the idea of a Jewish-American accent) feels like a trifling, underwritten afterthought. He is hardly introduced before he’s demonized. When Andrew, who it turns out has been overmedicated into submission by his psychiatrist father since he was a child, finally confronts his dad, the deck is stacked so much in favor of the protagonist that the confrontation feels perfunctory and shallow; it’s a fight against a straw man—there’s nothing to struggle against because we, on Andrew’s side, are obviously right. The film congratulates and manipulates the audience’s liberal sympathies.

Andrew and Sam are introduced to each other in the waiting room for the neurologist. She places headphones on his ears and claims that a song by the Shins (“New Slang” from their album Oh, Inverted World!) will change his life. We are only left with shots of Andrew and Sam smiling awkwardly at each other. The courtship between these two is relatively mild and uninspiring. Braff, the star of the mildly amusing Scrubs, a network sitcom, now an endangered species is a likeable enough presence. Here though, he has none of the goofy charm he displays on television. For a movie with such compulsory eccentricity, the protagonist is flat-out dull, and his very dullness is what’s meant to make us sympathize with him. You’re wondering half the time if he’s just apathetic or merely pathetic. Andrew’s inevitable romance with Sam feels obligatory—it seems like it is servicing the plot and the required redemptive conclusion rather than veracity. Sam and Andrew’s romance is neither romantic, sexy, or erotic. The last third of Garden State feels rushed and contrived—our young lovers must be brought together no matter what, no matter how trite and “audience friendly” the resolution. Our tiresome protagonist must be redeemed at all cost!

Walking out of the theater at a local film festival I overheard an older man in his mid-fifties being asked what Garden State was all about. “It’s about finding yourself,” he responded without a hint of sarcasm. At least it isn’t another of those sentimental foreign films about a precocious child’s coming of age or some lame-brained “Big Fat” ethnic farce. Despite the gentrification of the independent movie scene and the film festival circuit by Miramax and its clones, inventiveness is still possible. Take a look at the hilarious Napoleon Dynamite, created through independent financing, entirely outside the Hollywood system, with no-name actors and without the prepackaged quirkiness of this pap, with characters you care for rather than merely pity. Independent film, once an oasis for outsiders, has long since become the cinema of insiders. This film is ultimately the result of the Project Greenlight effect, the co-optation of offbeat indie cred by low- rent pretenders. The independent film movement, once the bastion of Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Whit Stillman, Gus Van Sant, and Steven Soderbergh (the contemporary response to the New Hollywood or French New Wave) has essentially been hijacked by snake oil salesmen hawking lame, self-congratulatory fare designed to appeal to the educated niche audience. After viewing Peter Weir’s Fearless, another similarly middle-brow tale of redemption, Pauline Kael, following a long sigh, said to fellow critic Charles Taylor, “Screwed again.” Yes, indeed. Screwed again.

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