Wednesday, January 05, 2005

I review Garden State

Actually, I'm not going to. Review it. I liked it too much. So I'm just going to make some observations.

I did not need to see a movie that perfectly captures the misery of my life when I was in my 20s.

How did a movie made in 2003, starring actors who were in nursery school when I was the age their characters are in the movie, perfectly capture the misery of my life in my 20s?

How can a movie made in 2003 and set in 2003 look like it was made when I was in my 20s?

It even sounds like it. Really, replace The Shins with The Clash, Frou Frou with Blondie, and you'd never know it wasn't a period piece, especially since nobody in the whole movie seems to own a car.

Nobody owns a computer or a cell phone either.

Really, I'm wondering if Zach Braff was trying to make a period piece.

Or just make a point about life never changing.

Natlie Portman is very tiny.

She is also very, very good.

Garden State proves that George Lucas is the world's worst director of actors and he should be banned from ever standing behind a camera for what he did to Portman in the last two Star Wars movies.

If someone in Hollywood is making a movie biography of the Monkees they should quick cast Zach Braff as Mike Nesmith.

Portman should play Davy Jones.

Not that she looks like him. Just that she's the right size and I think she could play anybody and look good banging a tambourine.

Ian Holm could probably play Davy Jones too. Obviously, he can play anybody. Like Snoopy doing all the animals in the Christmas play, he's ready to take on any part. "Ian, can you play a Hobbit?" "Ian, can you play Polonius in Hamlet?" "What about a crazy New York City street person who does impressions of sea gulls?" "What about a New York City Cop?" "Jack the Ripper?" "Ok, how about a Jewish American psychiatrist from New Jersey whose wife has just committed suicide?"

To make a good movie with very little money, after you cast Ian Holm and Natalie Portman, fill out your cast with actors who are regular bit players on Law and Order. (See also The Station Agent below.)

If I could ask Braff one question, I'd ask him if he meant for Albert's Ark to be an allusion to Dan Peggotty's house boat in David Copperfield, and if he says yes, I'm going to sit right down and dash off an article for Film Comment about the Dickensian aspects of Garden State, starting with the idea that both Garden State and David Copperfield are about wounded people putting together makeshift families.

In the not very crowded genre of movies about wounded people putting together makeshift families while coping with local eccentrics and set in New Jersey, this is the second best one I've seen in the last few months.

The best one was The Station Agent.

The third best was Clerks, but I saw that years ago.

One of the reasons I like The Station Agent a little bit better than Garden State is the attitude the two movies take towards self-pity.

In The Station Agent self-pity is the enemy. The plot, as much as there is one, is about how the three main characters rescue each other from self-pity. Self-pity is what makes Patricia Clarkson's character Olivia both the story's damsel in distress and the closet thing the film has to a villain. The most heart-wrenching scene, the movie's most tragic moment, is when Peter Dinklage's Finbar gives in to the self-pity he's been fighting off all along.

Garden State seems to think that Large's self-pity is Romantic and it's what makes us like and identify with him. Large's moment of self-discovery and salvation isn't when he casts aside his self-pity but when he decides he has a very good reason to feel sorry for himself.

I didn't like this because self-Romanticizing self-pity was part of what made me so miserable when I was in my 20s.

But it also works against the movie's happy ending because it mars the last scene with narcissism. Braff gets so caught up in Large's salvation that he almost forgets all about Natalie Portman. It's true that Portman's Sam rescues Braff's Large, but she does it by forcing him to rescue her. If Braff could have gotten past Large's self-pity, or seen it as an eccentricity, the way every other character's flaws are seen as eccentricities, then he might have noticed that there really isn't anything wrong with Large. He's fine. Large observes this about himself towards the end but Braff ignores his own character and directs the ending as if the person most endangered by Large's decision to return to California is Large.

It's Sam! I wanted to shout at the screen. I don't care what will happen to Large if he doesn't stay with Sam! He'll just find an actress to date. He'll wind up with that bitchy girl who ordered bread in the Vietnamese restaurant where Large was working at the beginning of the movie. He'll be fine. I care what will happen to Sam! I don't care if Large feels safe when he's with Sam. She is safe when she's with him!

The 8 year old was wrong that nothing happens in Garden State. It would have been better if nothing did, if Large didn't have any big issues with his parents to resolve, if Large was self-pitying and self-destructive for the same reason all the other characters (including Sam, whose self-destructiveness is her compulsion to tell unnecessary lies that get her dismissed by people as a kook)are self-pitying and self-destructive, because life is difficult and painful and most of us are just not equipped to deal with it and we're at a loss about what to do about that.

But I'm picking on a weakness in what I think is overall a very strong movie. And to Braff's credit most of the movie really is about everybody's pain not Large's self-pity. Sam delivers the key line:

"I know it hurts. But it's life, and it's real. And sometimes it fucking hurts, but it's life, and it's pretty much all we got."

And she prescribes all the movie has to offer as a palliative:

"If you can't laugh at yourself, life is going to seem a whole lot longer than you'd like."

Ron Liebman, in a brilliant cameo as a slightly befuddled but still excellent doctor, underlines the movie's essential stoical message: "Of course you're Ok. You're alive."

What the heck, self-pity is part of the music of David Copperfield and Shakespeare's sonnets.

In her comment on the post below, Jill says, "I thought [Garden State] was absolutely lovely, and I hold it in the same regard as Lost in Translation."

I can't rank Garden State right up there with Lost in Translation, but for personal reasons having to do with the fact that as clearly as I can remember when my life was like Large's, my situation and mood these days is much closer Bill Murray's in Lost, and with Scarlett Johanson's looking exactly like my high school girlfriend.

But I think Jill's right. Garden State is very good, and it is absolutely lovely.


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