Garden State

Garden State is about as good “indie” cinema gets these days. I use the term “indie” to mean those movies not financed by the big-budget divisions of the majors. It’s basically a superfluous term now unless you’re talking about a boldly personal, political, or aesthetic mission on the part of an artist working well outside the mainstream.

“Indie” movies, then, now lie squarely in the realm of the mediocre-but-watchable. Twenty-something filmmakers/writers/artists assaying difficult life topics as their subjects generally misfire with awfully precious, immature and false work. They ought to stick to material like Rush Hour and American Pie sequels–thematically easy-to-digest material that they can handle. The new generation of American filmmakers might be enthusiastic (you can’t make movies otherwise), but they have absolutely no sense of daring, originality or flair for the medium the way Cassavetes and his generation did. What is Tarantino, for instance, but a pasticheur who lifts entire ideas from other filmmakers who did it better the first time. To his credit, Tarantino has never tried to be a poet of the soul, never aspired to such a thing because he doesn’t have a soulful idea in him, and he knows it. So he wisely sticks to torturously contrived executions of secondhand material (with the exception, let me point out, of his lovely Jackie Brown).

Back to Garden State: This tepid comedy-drama about the unlikely love that blooms between a neurotic actor and a giggly, vivacious Jersey girl has enough moments of sweetness and truth to redeem its indie pretensions. The movie was directed by its star, Zach Braff, a TV actor, and, as such, has absolutely no cinematic signature. Braff’s staging is flat and he relies readily on smooth, arcing boom shots that feel out-of-place in material that purports to be so grounded in life’s simplicities.

A few good moments and spot-on dialogue save Garden State from hip du jour oblivion. Then again, the same can be said for 99 percent of the so-called “indie cinema” of the past fifteen years. Just because a filmmaker espouses the ideals of homegrown, anti-Hollywood cinema means nothing: There’s still the small matter of having something truthful to convey and, more than that, the cinematic chops and the poet’s soul to give it form. The same goes for all the Sundancey titles like that indie lump of cheese whiz, The Station Agent. Take it away before I throw up, and pass me my copy of Rush Hour.

Another huge gripe with Braff’s movie: What’s with the wall-to-wall, almost whorish, adherence to the indie-pop soundtrack? If he weren’t busy posturing as a storyteller, Braff would do well to sign on as a shill for The Shins and spare the rest of us the brunt of his filmmaking ambitions.

Is specious dreck like this the best that indie cinema can come up with nowadays, in its desperate flailing for something quirky, honest? Garden State, All the Real Girls, Donnie Darko. If not such overcooked trifle, we get the bloated inanities from film brat like P.T. Anderson who thinks he’s doing something Important. My advice to them and filmmakers of that ilk who would commit stories to celluloid: Follow Christopher Nolan’s lead and stick to Hollywood factory filmmaking. Hone your craft and resist attempts at “personal” filmmaking.

It almost seems that modern American culture, with its incessant and pervasive big media influences, has bled the “individuality” out of its popular arts. We don’t experience our own lives anymore so much as draw on lives and values absorbed from advertising, TV, and movies. The last two generations have been saturated with values of consumerism and paranoia at the absence of individual creative development–a group cultural phenomenon I like to call zombification. Garden State, with its bland and desperate humor, is symptomatic of zombification, and, as sad as it sounds, the quintessential product by and for uninspired times.

Grade: C

Directed by: Zach Braff
Witten by: Zach Braff
Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Jean Smart, Ann Dowd, Alex Burns

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