Written by: Zach Braff
Starring: Zach Braff, Ian Holm, Method Man, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard
Simply existing does not make every single person very interesting to follow. Yes, each person carries value, but the point of filmmaking is to follow something intriguing even in the slightest. Something completely lost in the stages of creating Garden State. A film about a dull man and how we’re meant to root for him to eventually drag down other characters who have much more important things to say.
Returning to New Jersey from California in order to attend his mother’s funeral, struggling actor, Andrew (Zach Braff) begins to catch up with some old high school friends. He eventually meets someone new, the eccentric Sam (Natalie Portman), who refuses to let Andrew sulk on more and actually confront the emotions that have been ailing him for so long.
When discussions of the “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” trope existent in many films arose, I could never truly visualize what it meant until watching Garden State. A trope many look down upon with good reason seeing as it forces the audience to follow an incredibly dull male protagonist with no interesting traits and have to see an eccentric girl make him do anything remotely intriguing. This film displays this trope appears in its worst state. It appears in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but at the very least, that film is doing something spellbinding on a visual and intellectual level. In this feature, however, Andrew’s dullness spreads to the rest of the film.
Following any other character in this story would have yielded better results in profound storytelling because Andrew is such a dud in every single way. What ails him does not immediately make itself apparent but as the story progresses there is plenty of guilt festering in his heart about the condition of his mother and how he played a part in it. This caused a rift between him and his father that never had a valid confrontation for most of Andrew’s life. Garden State features the journey of Andrew realizing this through the help of Sam and others in order to finally have the much-needed conversation. However, by the time we get to the climatic point, the film lost me on more than one occasion.
At its core, the aspect of this film truly holding it back is that it believes itself to be far more profound than the results yield. It contains many grand statements about life trying to be intellectual but matched with its protagonist, it falls flat on its face in hilarious ways. I understand star/writer/director Zach Braff wanted to reach for something lofty in his presentation of this story but it just does not have anything of substance to say. It could be saved if it contained some interesting sequences and conversations but it seemingly cannot accomplish this either and what does it leave the audience with? For me, it’s Natalie Portman trying her best to make something out of this mess.
Saddled with the thankless role of being the “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” she needs to do it all in order to lift the protagonist from the mud and she truly tries her darndest to make it happen to no success. Her eccentricities serve the protagonist and nothing else, especially in the hope of giving her some sense of agency as a character. Silly me, I figured getting a top star like Portman in this indie would come with her receiving something of substance. Unfortunately, not the case, and in the end we’re meant for these two to have a romantic connection when on an emotional level they are sitting on very different wavelengths and she could do much better.
If anything, Garden State is a reminder of the importance of having a substantive protagonist. Sure, they can be a vessel for the supporting characters to shine but they need to have something of note for the audience to follow. Instead, we receive a protagonist who only matches paint drying in levels of intrigue and we spend this entire experience seeing everything through his eyes, which only makes it duller. Superficial when trying to be ultimately profound, this feature brings nothing to the table on an intellectual or emotional level for anyone to engage with, making this a massive dud.