Greatest Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #17 – 'Garden State'

Masterminded by Mike at You Talking To Me?, the multi-blog-a-thon entitled 27 Greatest Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck asks fellow bloggers to identify the singularly great and iconic films that have created nothing but disappointing, and god-awful impersonators. Ultimately causing the film in question to remain famous for being original and ground breaking but at the same time infamous for creating doppelgängers we wish we could “un-see”. I was asked to contribute my thoughts on one of my favorite movies Garden State, which I believe to be a neo-classic. Unfortunately (for the purpose of this post anyway) Garden State did more to inspire and help the success of similar films and did not create an army of pathetic, uninspiring wannabes. It did however start and simultaneously stall the “film” career of Zach Braff and probably unintentionally stalled a slew of hopeful TV actors looking to make their leap to the big screen.

Garden State (2004) was a film which helped give renewed interest and acceptance in the higher-end independent films and made audiences (and studios) open-minded to other similarly quirky and heartfelt films. With any independent film, by virtue of the fact that it is in fact “independent”, garnering any sort of praise is not only difficult but trying to bring something different to the table is also quite a challenge. First time director Zach Braff (of Scrubs fame) culled from his past and inserted many elements of his life into the film. It made for a very personal film to him but also connected with multiple audiences as it was a story void of pretension and followed exposed characters mostly stripped to their core.

While not the first independent film to become a hit (while similarly featuring a cast mostly comprised of young but established actors), Garden State was not your everyday story either. An unconventional yarn, it is a quirky tale of forgiveness with hints at being a love story. Mainly about the main character’s quietly troubled past, it focuses on two unlikely people who hit it off because of their oddness. Again we’ve seen this before but what Braff successfully did was inject a greatly downplayed blend of his signature Scrubs comedy into a what is actually an emotional story. The end result is a touching story that is fun although despite it’s narrative having no clear end goal. That approach allowed the audience to relate to nearly every character because they (although fictitious) were depicted to be real people with a unique and fragile nature.

Walking the line of a drama the comedy the film is a muted to an almost British hybrid that while it may appear dull on the surface, it has many emotional layers that speak to different viewers at different stages of their lives. Against the norm narrative here, there was no hero, no villain and the beauty of the film was the realness it projected. Almost documentary feeling in nature, Garden State echoed a true to life vibe with its unflattering and frankly banal characters as well as the lack of superficial resolution.

Countless  independent films follow emotionally troubled or socially destitute characters. Those films, which many times involves a broken family as a key component, makes the audience party to their tragic story while trying to show the good amongst the bad, but I feel Garden State was a slightly different animal. Going for an awkward but heartfelt story, Garden State stayed clear of a depressing story (dominant and expected in a good number of “independent” films) and also downplayed much of glamor surrounding their established young actors. Without a traditional “Hollywood star” in any lead role, each scene worked as the actors could share the screen without making is seem that they were trying to outshine each other. There was no hogging the spotlight or stealing the scenes. This allowed for an almost ensemble (or troupe) feel without actually being one.

By way of becoming both a financial and critical success, it showed studios that it was not as risky as once thought to back an independent film. It paved the way for films like JunoLittle Miss SunshineSunshine CleaningWhip ItAway We Go, etc. Again, as it is not the first independent film to beat the odds and reach wide audiences, it did show that a film doesn’t have to be produced by a big league studio to be a hit or tell a great story. On the down side, Garden State made those same studios think they could pass off films that claim to be an independent or oddball in nature just by using mostly unrecognized talent. Also, much as Garden State’s success could be called an anomaly, the same success proved that lightning doesn’t always strike twice. Garden State‘s greatest strength (Braff) didn’t translate as well to other films where Braff’s presence didn’t necessarily mean success. Films like The Ex and The Last Kiss didn’t quite live up to the precedent that Garden State established. While he has incredible potential, it made it look like he just can’t distance himself from the character and style of acting on Scrubs. The downside is that Braff’s return to TV probably helped redefine that line between television acting and film acting, making it that much harder for TV actors get a break.

All in all, Garden State (and another successful film that year, Napoleon Dynamite) reconfirmed the adage that you can’t judge a film or its message by its cover (3 kids wearing trash bags yelling for a yet unknown reason still seems a bit odd). It is truly the quality of the story that defines the success. Finally it is a film judged by its core elements of the story as well as the resonance with the audience that defines a “hit film”…no matter the budget or the varying degree of familiar vs. unfamiliar elements there-in.

  • you see, maybe i need to see it again but i didnt think much of Garden State. too introspectivey for me, sadly.
    so what if the soundtrack is cool? you have to have an engaging film first. and people whining about their lives doesnt make for a good film

    • Marc

      I can see how it’s not for everybody. What I liked about the film is that even though (as you say) they were whinning about their lives, the film didn’t try to wrap everyone’s sad existence up in a nice Hollywood bow. It’s not a grab you and bring you in type of movie, yet it has a kind of hypnotic draw, that if you do see and understand what they were aiming for (showing brief glimpses of levity in lives that are irreparably pretty crappy), you could get sucked in to the story.
      To me it hit home since I was born in and grew up in New Jersey (for some of my life). I also flew home, after being away for a long time, to attend a funeral, so it’s odd how similar an experience I had with this.

      Soundtrack was really great though, I’m glad you brought that up. Also, maybe, just maybe, had the music not been good, I would not have liked the movie so much (despite the relateable elements). A movie without the right song or music is like watching home movies about people you don’t know or care about:P

    • Castor

      Got to agree with Ross here. It was good but I don’t think it was great and I don’t really understand all the hype behind this film.

  • You know, the first time I saw this movie it didn’t do much for me. It had that kind of indie-but-not-quite Sundance feel to it and although it was fine, I didn’t love it. Then I watched it again, just a couple months ago and realizes how sweet, tender, and funny it is. It’s one of those moment films. It doesn’t exist for some sort of overriding narrative ark and doesn’t deal in climaxes but it just has a lot of nice moments strung together. In that sense, as well as the soundtrack, it has a very Cameron Crowe feel. It’s not a major film, but it certaily is quite major in it’s minorness if you see what I’m saying.

    • Marc

      That’s what I was going for when I said it almost feels like documentary less any narrative. The nice moments are quite underplayed yet the deliveries of some actors (Holm specifically) just hit home with me every time. Again, I’m a (reluctant to admit it) kid from Jersey so while this didn’t catch on with some people’s tastes, I totally dug it. Also I know exactly what you mean Mike about its outcome – it was an accomplishment in that it did more with less, and yet still made an impact that few like it were able to achieve…am I close?

  • See, I would love to agree with you here, but as you know I hated Garden State. But I will agree that it was an alright movie and yes, its trend definitely did make going to the movies suck lol. Stylistically it really started something rather lame in movies, but I kind of blame that more on Wes Andersen and his films who may have started it long before this did.

    • Marc

      Well to each their own. Again I find value in the movie for how well I was able to relate to it. I can see the similarities to Anderson’s work, but where as you may hate Garden State, I am really not fond of Wes Anderson’s work…but I have heard great things about Fantastic Mr. Fox and want to see it.