Garden State

Friday, October 15, 2004

There's not much chemistry in Garden State, but maybe there doesn't need to be. If so many love stories are the right person at the (comically) wrong time, GS deals with not necessarily the wrong but not necessarily the right, possibly any (or at least any not clearly wrong) person at the right time. Sam doesn't cause a change in Largeman's life (though maybe she inspires him to keep it); she merely appears at the time it takes place, and if this is meant to convey fate, it more convincingly states that their meet-up (hook-up) is more about time than person. This is probably not the intent of director Braff; Natalie Portman's Samantha ("Sam," meant to mean 'quirky' name) is stocked with enough 'charming'-style idiosyncrasies that she's probably meant to signify uniqueness. Let us forgive her, though. If these quirks seem a little run-of-the-mill, they still signify a certain level of vitality, and a certain level of vitality combined with the primary factor - timing - is evidently plenty.

The film states early on (as early as the funeral) the familiar small-town (or hometown) trap, and puts Largeman back in the un/appealing haze of drugs/booze/high school girls; while it doesn't condemn it outright, it seems to be setting us up for the contrast of the sunnier world Sam will bring along. The portrayal is generous, though; it's easy to make the hometown party scene (the party scene and film scene both) completely unredeemable, but Braff lets it have a little appeal - the doting and at least somewhat genuine friends, the pretty girls, the allowance by Largeman of himself to trade his usual medication for more illicit kinds - and even if his smile is at least partly influenced by drugs and a large part by confusion, it's at least a small part drugs, booze, girls and home. Though he may be enjoying some part or parts of the experience, Braff presents it visually so as to remind us that even if it's a more pleasurable fog, it's still a fog, and maybe also proof that though this may be as far as he can get from his usual stumbly routine - ingesting medications designed to intensity feeling rather than nullify it - a fog is a fog.

The answer left to him is to seek the clarity somewhere between the antithetical fogs of feeling and unfeeling at either end of the spectrum. For this he needs to stop taking drugs. He does not need to meet a girl. If he should happen to do so, great, but his decision to leave his drugs behind is made before he meets Sam; he meets her only because he has already begun to enact the course of actions designed to free his consciousness from its pharmaceutical accommodations.

Is she a bonus prize, then, or is she the fated meaning? The latter comprises a high-demand series of assertions: that Largeman was destined to pull his act together and leave the drugs behind in the precise nick of time to return home where he would come across the girl destined to change his life in the brief window of time before he lost faith in non-drugged reality due to what would likely have been a series of strange and unfulfilling experiences with his father, his old friends, his hometown, returned to his fairly empty life and his fairly full medicine cabinet. This girl would be the only girl quirky enough to point out to him how weird and good his life might be. If the chemistry were a little better, that would be the assumed intent.
But there's not much chemistry in Garden State.

The result is that Sam does not seem the girl destined to be in that spot at that time when Largeman made that call. She seems, instead, like a girl. She's a nice girl. She's somewhat pretty and somewhat interesting and she doesn't have a boyfriend at the
moment; she doesn't seem to listen to Guns N Roses. Her lying, potentially a source of some deeper interest in the character and possibly a bond between the two - a legitimate mental condition - is played lightweight, and it's never clear whether their respective familial problems are meant to be a bond or merely the mark of all families and thus presented as not a reason for them to not get along.

There's nothing so wrong with that. As he comes out of his lithium stupor, he begins to recognize the value of small experiences, of anything not experienced through an antidepressant cloud. Like a smoker who has quit, the air seems cleaner; we do not experience this through dramatization of details (with a glaring, trite exception or two) but rather more retroactively, and when he explains it to another character late in the film, he is explaining it to the audience as well.

In any case, during this reawakening, a small experience comes along which benefits from this period of increased value: he meets a girl. She may or may not be anything special, but in his mental state, even her small amount of verve is enough to seem like a big deal, and he is willing enough to follow her enthusiasm that she becomes his tour guide through an alternate version of the Hometown Return, showing him that his brief tour through his hometown doesn't need to be what he (and we) thought it would be. Certainly she is presented as more appealing than the druggy girls at the party, and if he has begun to denounce that trap of old friends and old habits into which he might have fallen, Sam shows him that his journey through town need not be dictated by that default pathway. In a destiny-style love story, that would probably be the point, but it is still clear in Garden State that she is neither solely responsible for it nor completely effective, for when Largeman is reclaimed by his old friends for more parties and gatherings, she does not remove him from that scene but comes along instead. Just as druglessness adds to the value of her presence, she becomes a small amount of increased value to the party scene, her presence making the parties tolerable. She even seems to make his experience with his friends tolerable; it isn't until she comes along that Mark begins to seem redeemable, and though it's got nothing to do with her, it's once again due to framing. She didn't redeem Mark because she's not the catalyst for Largeman's life improving. Mark redeemed himself, or became viewable by Largeman as redeemed or redeemable, because Largeman's new viewing angle on the world allows space for him to find the redeemable aspects of Mark's flawed life.

If it had been Sam, if Sam was his destined true love (or whatever), she might have come along just as she did and just when she did. Their meeting does seem to indicate that, at least in fortuitous-meeting movie terminology. On its own, their meeting and a few of their interactions seem to hint at a traditional destiny-style love story, but the rest of the movie contradicts this, and when we finally realize that because of his mother Largeman does not believe in destiny, only dumb chance and accident, we know that Largeman and Sam weren't destined to meet, they just happened to, and maybe that's not so bad?

Reviewed by Matthew Abrams
Contents
The Hills Have Eyes 2

Hostel Part II

Six Degrees

Shark

Jericho

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Justice

The Hills Have Eyes

Love Monkey

Out of Practice

Head Cases

Crunchwrap Supreme

The Exorcism of Emily Rose

Batman Begins

Garden State

Hero

13 Going On 30

LAX

Starman

quirkyalone.net

Kill Bill, Vol. 2

Line of Fire

We Shall All Be Healed

Happy Family

Arrested Development

Love Actually

A Minute with Stan Hooper

Tarzan

Karen Sisco

Stop All the World Now

Cold Case

Skin

10-8

Joan of Arcadia

Eve

Luis

Lost In Translation

House of 1000 Corpses

Bubba Ho-Tep

Darkness Falls

Pirates of the Caribbean

The Amazing Race

Treasure Island

FearDotCom

Adaptation

To Hit Armor Class Zero

Without A Trace

8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter

Life With Bonnie

Jalapeņo Cheeseburger

The Mothman Prophecies

Happy Campers

The Man Who Wasn't There

Kiss of the Dragon

Josie & the Pussycats

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Dr. Pepper

Know By Heart

Waking Life

L.I.E.

Thirteen Ghosts

Earthlink presents Chang and Eng

New York and Country Bar

Change

Motivation and Water Tower Grammar

Crossing Philly

Makeout Club

Undeclared

The Gap

The Abolition of Work

3000 Miles to Graceland

Kolobos

Duets

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Diesel Sweeties

The Cold Six Thousand

The Grilled Stuft Burrito (Rebuttal)

60 Second Wipeout

The Patriot

Grilled Stuft Burrito

Cowgirls

Crystalline

Frankenfinger E.P.

One Force Down

Shake

Both Our Secrets

Happy Birthday Captain Columbus!

Fight Club

Whatever It Takes

Committed

That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice?

Joe Dirt

The Veggie Whopper

Taco Bell Nachos

Palmetto

Godzilla vs. Monster Zero

The Terror of Mechagodzilla

To The Center

Infiniti+Infiniti

American Psycho

The Del Shredder

What Lies Beneath

The Cheesy Gordita Crunch

Bring It On

Chill Factor

Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars

Bad Company

The Blair Witch Project

Hyacinths and Thistles

Lake of Dracula

We'll Have a Time

Home Depot

Snow Day

The Virgin Suicides