Rated R for persistent language throughout, drug use, and a pretty intense sex scene, coupled with some mild sex scenes. Like, it really adds stuff to make it feel R-rated at times. Every time you feel comfortable with the rest of the movie being this twee joyride, it then adds something remarkably aggressive when it comes to content. It's fine. The movie has every right to do that. I don't know why I'm giving it permission. I just forgot how much questionable content there was in this movie. Oh, also a casual use of the word "retarded". R.
DIRECTOR: Zach Braff
I'm just on a tear of movies that I used to watch in college / post-college on repeat. It wasn't planned this way. It's literally one of the movies in my Fox Searchlight box set and it was the next film on the list. What am I supposed to do, not watch it? That's an element of chaos that would just throw me over the edge. It's so funny to not only watch the movie for cultural influence, but also to think who I was as a film fan in 2004. Again, this is the era where I owned a lot of movies, but I would watch the stuff I owned on repeat. It's just a very different philosophy. I love coming back to an old favorite, but part of me also can now see some flaws that I didn't necessarily see before.
I'll be honest, I thought that this movie would age way worse than it actually did. Garden State was one of my few exposures to independent film. It was one of those movies that I could drop in college that was mainstream enough that it hit my radar, but was also obscure enough for me to say, "You haven't seen Garden State? It'll change your life." Really, the biggest influence that this movie had on me was its soundtrack. I don't think a soundtrack has ever been played harder in my class than the Garden State soundtrack. I think I subconsciously used that soundtrack to make me seem knowledgeable about music. Music, as much as I invest in cool stuff, is always going to be my Achilles heel. I can try to be a pop culture savant, but my taste in music has always been heavily influenced by movies.
Anyways, Garden State still mostly plays for me because it has the core of a great film underneath its trappings. The things that attracted me to the movie in 2004 were the moments we all remember. Ultimately, these moments are the ones that are more cringy for me now. It was the hip soundtrack coupled with twee visuals. The movie opens with a plane crashing while Largeman sits there neutrally, waiting to die. This very expensive looking scene opens the film and ends up immediately revealed to be a dream. It kind of encapsulates my feelings about the movie as a whole. It quickly identifies that Andrew Largeman is so emotionally stunted that he wouldn't even mind a violent death. But it also is a baseball bat to the head in terms of establishing character. Immediately following this scene, we get a look into his medicine cabinet. Rather than having a few pills, the cabinet is lined with pills. A great visual, certainly, but it lacks any subtlety whatsoever. There's really no opportunity to misinterpret the themes in this film because Braff is really selling it pretty hard.
But this also brings up something that I really have to consider. Without the visuals and the heavy-handed storytelling, would Garden State have ever made it to my radar? I started by saying that Garden State has a lot to offer still. By the end of the film, I was still as genuinely moved as I was as a kid. The movie still has the chops, but Garden State kind of permeated the public consciousness because it was so aggressive. It's not surprising that, around the same time as Garden State, I was also obsessed with the visual imagery of Baz Luhrmann. Yeah, Moulin Rouge! was one of the movies on heavy repeat. I'm not proud of that confession. I kinda-sorta rewatched it somewhat recently (not the past four years, I guess), but it did not hold up. It was for a lot of the same reasons that I'm commenting with Garden State. I thought it was visually aggressive, so much so that I had a disconnect with the characters, at least with Moulin Rouge!.
But Braff has something to say in this movie. I'd like to state from an objective point of view: "Don't just go cold turkey off your meds without the approval of a doctor". Braff is talking about a part of culture that has been so overmedicated that the world has no meaning. From an artist's perspective, I can see how this would be a pretty sexy throughline. Similarly, he has something very profound to say about death. I'm a pretty broken individual about death. While Largeman can't cry over his mom's death because he really can't feel anything, there's also a much more complex relationship that he has with the living and the dead. Yeah, the movie really rides that fine line between advocating euthanasia and simply stating that Mom was in pain for a very long time. But Largeman's experience with death is married to the concept that his father has always held Andrew as a villain in his own personal narrative. (Note: I really wanted to watch Alien to celebrate Ian Holm, but I was floored that I forgot that Ian Holm was in Garden State.) These ideas are mutually related. Sure, a lot of that comes from the idea that Largeman was unable to comprehend what it meant to mourn his mother, but it comes from the idea that he views his mother only in relation to his father. His mother's accident has defined his mother as the cause for his numbness. It's this need to want to love his mother, but being unable to separate the trauma he experienced from the empathetic nature to comfort his mother. From his perspective, he vacillates between blaming himself for his mom's condition and blaming her for not being able to handle the push from a 9 year old. And his father, for all of his attempts to be the perfect father, only encouraged those dark thoughts because he, too, had the same thoughts. It's a weird line, but it also feels hauntingly real. That's probably what gets me so hung up on all the twee stuff is that the movie has something very real at the center of the film that kind of gets buried under The Shins. It's odd that a lot of the movie is dodging the conversation that establishes Largeman's growth. It's because of the events of the story, but Braff is also dead on by saying "You've been avoiding me."
The message that kind of comes out of the film, and that explains the disclaimer, is that medication numbs and the healthiest thing you can do for yourself is to get off of them right now. Andrew goes to the neurologist, who is floored by his regimen. The odds that Largeman could get just go cold turkey off of all of them in a long weekend is a scary prospect. He's been on those things for the majority of his life. His brain chemistry has to be different and dependent. Also, how does he not have a hangover from all that. Did the ecstasy he did at the party counteract those symptoms, because that means the movie advocates anti-medicine and pro-drugs and that's a weird stance to take. I don't really think Garden State is advocating for that, but it does really play with that concept a lot. I should note that Andrew, before saying goodbye to Sam, establishes that he has to find a new therapist, so that might give the movie some mental health points.
Is it weird that I was in love with Natalie Portman's Sam when I watched this movie? I thought that was the girl I was supposed to find, someone who doesn't live within the constraints of reality. Portman plays Sam REALLY young. In my mind, Sam was an adult who just didn't play by the rules. But Sam comes across as a complete child in this movie and I had no concept of that as a child. It's actually really weird that Largeman falls for Sam so hard. She is aggressive as heck and regularly lies to him. Don't get me wrong. I'm totally on board for them at the end of the film. I'm in their corner, cheering when "Let Go" plays over the telephone booth. But it's weird that they become an item to begin with. Their dynamic is very weird. Maybe it is because she sees him. Everyone's excited to see Largeman, the fallen hero returned home. But she doesn't know the myth of Largeman. Okay, she kind of does, because she's seen the movie that he's in. But she meets him from a new perspective. She's also the only one who really acknowledges his discomfort with social situations.
While I criticized the opening dream on the airplane, the pool scene is far better characterization than this dream that's a tell-all. It's because we have reaction by other characters. The use of the foil in a story tells me the real problem that Andrew Largeman has. He's this myth to people. He exists as an urban legend to those around him. He got out of a town that breeds gravediggers and get rich quick schemes. He also is the guy who was sent to military school because they worried that he was a threat to others. It's not that Mark doesn't love him; he does. It's just that Mark also is incapable of jumping into the deep end like an outsider would be able to. Sam is able to view Andrew's discomfort. Yeah, it comes from the inability to swim. But the inability to swim comes from the fact that he didn't have a normal childhood. The other swimmers view him as a freak. Sam, an outsider herself, is able to view Largeman from a sympathetic place. Wearing a helmet to work, knowing that she could never be an Olympic skater, she understands Largeman. It's why I get them together at the end. But I don't see it from the beginning, especially after Sam calls Andrew out for his tasteless joke regarding Jelly.
So Garden State is now a weird thing for me. It's bones are amazing. The emotional stuff is so good. It's just when Zach Braff tries manipulating me into emotions that are now off putting. But you know what? I would have made the exact same moves as a young director. It's so effective for reaching a target audience. Get welcomes people inside and then takes them on an emotional journey. It's a movie that holds up way more than I ever thought it would. It's not the obsessive movie that I saw back in the day, but it is still pretty fantastic.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.