in defense

In Defense of Zach Braff’s Garden State

Photo: Fox Searchlight

This piece originally ran in May 2013. We are republishing it on the occasion of Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, out this Friday.

There was a time when you and I liked Garden State. It was about nine years ago. Around when it got nominated for the Grand Jury prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival (losing out to Shane Carruth’s Primer), garnered overwhelmingly positive reviews (earning an 86 percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes), and made $35.8 million at the box office (which is more than 14 times what it cost to make). Sounds like forever ago, I know, but it really happened. But then, somewhere between its soundtrack winning a Grammy and Zach Braff raising more than $2 million on Kickstarter to film a tonal sequel, we started hating Garden State. The movie didn’t change — we did. With Braff about to embark on his next directorial effort, it seems like a fine time to look at why the new us, the older us, despises a good movie we used to enjoy.

It’s not hard to find tirades against Garden State on the internet, but few are as impassioned and hilarious as the one by New York theater critic Scott Brown in his 2011 review of Braff’s first play, All New People:

His Garden State made a hubristically deliberate bid to be The Graduate for the Exhausted Aughts — and it did, in fact, crystallize the profound self-absorption of mope-is-me Bush-age late-twentysomethings. We briefly, guiltily enjoyed Braff’s ad hoc quirk collage, his breezy use of modern anxiety as fashion accessory, his crypto-jailbait Flowers for Algernon girl-child love interest. We enjoyed these things even as we recognized, on some level, that Garden State was an Uncanny Valley, an emo simulacrum of actual human feeling — a pose. Now we’re cratered recession-era thirtysomethings with infants and anemic stock portfolios, and, looking back, we can’t forgive Braff for getting us mostly right. Rome was burning, and we were a bunch of preening, overmedicated, playlist-mongering nincompoops, begging for indie cred and youth relevance from an advancing army of Real Millennials. I know, I’m starting to look old to you, Li’l Joe Hoodie, but before you dismiss me, please listen to this new band I heard in Bushwick! I really think you’ll want to paste it into your YouFace Wallpage Feedlot! Braff had the brass to venerate his generation without an ounce of critique, and fetishize himself in the process: He’ll always be, first and foremost, the man who had Natalie Portman, playing an epileptic pixie next door, harvesting his hard-won tears in Dixie Cups. No pardon awaits him on the other side of the Cultural Styx. 

As he notes, he “briefly, guiltily enjoyed” Garden State until, well, he loathed Garden State. There are a lot of movies, much worse movies, that are as emo, as self-aggrandizing, and that feature an even more manic manic pixie dream girl, but Garden State is the one we talk about. Have you seen the well-soundtracked garbage that was Elizabethtown (the movie that first inspired the term manic pixie dream girl)? And that’s the difference — Garden State was good enough to define the things that we come to hate in certain movies (and certain characters and people). It’s become a symbol for its blend of quirky, twee, morose, earnest, precious hipsterness, and it’s resented for it. We’ve confused its influence for cliché.

You might be thinking, Influence? Psssh. Braff stole everything he knew from Woody Allen and Hal Ashby. First, it should be pointed out that basically every young male screenwriter steals from them. Second, he happily acknowledges their influence. In an Indiewire interview from 2004, he directly states as much: “Hal Ashby in general I think is great, and Woody Allen, of course, especially films like Annie Hall and Manhattan.” (Considering Braff has acted in an Allen movie — Manhattan Murder Mystery — he should get at least a little bit of street cred here.) Third, Garden State feels like something different, even if slightly. It’s like Harold and Maude, if you definitely want to fuck Maude and kind of want to fuck Harold. For better or for worse (many say for worse), Braff pioneered a certain brand of attractive, young, sad bastard that we then saw over and over again for the last decade.

I wouldn’t dare suggest that no one was writing these movies and creating these characters before Garden State or that a generation of screenwriters saw it and decided to whip up their best impersonation. What seems more likely is Garden State and its success taught studios and producers how to market and make money off these films. It’s a lot easier to sell a pitch by saying, “It’s like Garden State but … ” than, “It’s a deadpan, offbeat, romantic dramedy about a disillusioned boy-man and the impulsive, vintage-clothes-wearing, non-sequitur-loving girl-woman of his dreams.” The result was many, many kindred-spirited films — some were good (500 Days of Summer), some were bad (Gigantic), and a lot starred Zooey Deschanel. Like Pearl Jam and its shitty post-grunge imitators, it grew hard to not resent patient zero.

Worse yet for Garden State’s legacy is it’s tied to the codifying of an archetypal character that is easily one of today’s most reviled: whiny hipsters. The film might’ve come out years before “Why the Hipster Must Die,” “Hipster Olympics,” 2 Broke Girls, and the thousandth New York Times trend piece about hipsters in Williamsburg, yet it was part of the culture that lead to those things. Like Urban Outfitters becoming as omnipresent as J.Crews or movie stars with glasses and/or bangs, Garden State was huge in the mainstreaming of indie culture. This is where I mention Garden State’s soundtrack, which was as taste-defining as any soundtrack since Romeo + Juliet. Garden State, along with The O.C., paved the way for the Grey’s Anatomy–ing of indie music and helped develop the hipster middlebrow that is simultaneously too hip for the unhip and too unhip for the hip. The Shins’ newfound popularity infuriated both former fans and those prone to hate the Shins for not being Bon Jovi. So as hipster grew to become a pejorative thrown around by everyone to mock basically everyone else, Garden State got hit in the crossfire. “You probably listen to the Garden State soundtrack” is likely a real insult said recently by both an artisanal pretzel baker/tattoo artist in Bushwick and a state-school fraternity president. However, what gets lost in this shorthand is that the soundtrack has a whole bunch of great songs on it, regardless of the fact that every soundtrack since has also had Iron & Wine on it (or at least artists that sound like Iron & Wine). Braff isn’t a hipster (he got into the National in 2010 — that’s after High Violet came out, yeesh), he just picked songs he liked that fit his movie. And Braff has okay-to-decent taste in sad 20-somethings’ music.

And in 2013, we hate, or at least love to hate, sad 20-somethings. Have you ever read anything negative about Girls*? If so, you know what I’m talking about. (If not, is this your first time on the internet? Welcome. There are a lot of smart opinions about Girls here.) The crux of the hating is that youngish people who have grown up vaguely privileged and female shouldn’t make art about their problems when there are bigger problems out there. Now, Braff and the character he created are not female, but he’s something just as bad: not traditionally masculine. Garden State came out in a time of peak male sadness, when a band like My Chemical Romance could go platinum. Over the last half-decade or so, however, culture has turned its back on dudes that just want to feel something. Don Draper, Ron Swanson, the recent rise of hunks in TV and movies, the Old Spice guy: We fetishize men who are “men.” And it comes from all sides: 30-somethings who look down upon their former wimpy naïveté, manly men who never understood why men were acting like women in the first place, and effeminate men who respond to this masculinity shift by denying that part of themselves. If Brown is correct and Garden State was a response to our insecurities toward President Bush’s shortsighted macho-ness, then, in turn, we decided to now hate it to cover our insecurities over having a contemplative president who wears well-fitting suits. Garden State represents a male whininess that the culture decided should once again be banned. And I get it — it’s a heavy movie. Hell, basically, the plot is built around a grown man’s desire to cry. But we can’t all be Ron Swansons — some of us grow facial hair to cover the tracks of our tears. It might have gone out of style, but earnest, emotional, nerdy men exist and have problems, and are often the types who write films. Just because Zach Braff doesn’t look and act like Chris Hemsworth does not mean he didn’t write a good movie.

And it is a good movie — not a great movie, but a good movie. I watched it for the first time since it came out for this piece. I was taken aback. I was never a fan per se, but on rewatch, it was much better-looking and more sharply plotted than I remembered. An obviously personal movie, it’s an impressive portrait of its lead character, Andrew Largeman. The film is rightfully criticized for having its female character only exist to help the male protagonist find himself. However, this is hardly a new or unique phenomenon. And more important, all of the other characters, including Peter Sarsgaard’s Mark, are just as undeveloped. It’s a short movie about one man’s journey, so ultimately, all of the other characters are in service of that. So, yes, these other characters don’t add up to much more than a pile of quirky details, but to Braff’s credit, they are really solid quirky details. Mark collecting worthless Desert Storm trading cards because they’ll be worth thousands one day is fantastically specific and trenchantly telling. There are a lot of bits like this that you might’ve forgotten: the recently rich Jesse spending his time shooting flaming arrows into the sky; Sam’s hamster dying from its inability to use a wheel; Largeman, soon after learning of his mom’s death, finding the spigot from a gas pump still in his car’s gas tank. In his positive review of the film, Roger Ebert responded to that last moment when he wrote: “This is not a perfect movie; it meanders and ambles and makes puzzling detours. But it’s smart and unconventional, with a good eye for the perfect detail.”

And these details get lost when you instead focus on what you find insufferable about what the film symbolizes and whom it represents. Yes, at one point, Largeman literally screams into the infinite abyss while “The Only Living Boy in New York” plays, but that’s hardly the whole movie. It might be heavy-handed, but it is an accurate and compelling portrayal of a young man who feels like a bystander to his own life. As we get older, it’s easy to ignore that reality, but there’s a reason the film resonated and still resonates.

It’s something I realized when my anxious younger brother called to tell me he was donating to Zach Braff’s Kickstarter. Thinking it was frozen in an era he was too young for, I had assumed he’d never seen Garden State. I was wrong. He’d go on to inform me that it’s one of his absolute favorite movies: “I like the character of a sad guy who’s kind of messed up in the head.” It’s easy to look down upon a time when we were younger and less self-assured, but for the youth still in the trenches, movies like Garden State are essential, temporary consolations. It’s why, when many blogs scoffed at it, Braff easily raised more than $2 million for his next movie — backed by more than 33,000 (!!!!) young, earnest, sad donors with okay-to-decent taste in music.

Also, Garden State is a really solid title for a movie about New Jersey.

* I reached out to Lena Dunham via Twitter to see if she liked Garden State. Here’s her pretty perfect answer: “Walked around the city in too-big heels, the soundtrack on discman, lifting my wistful face to the chill breeze.”

In Defense of Garden State