Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Garden State

First films are tricky. A good director is likely to either blow everything he’s got on this one big chance or to make a film that is decent but only hints at the greatness in store. Watching Zach Braff’s Garden State, one is left without a clear idea of which one has happened here.

Braff’s writing/directorial debut is full of the touches one might expect from an actor with a good eye and several years worth of “images” saved up. The actor appears in a paisley shirt against an identical background. A bathroom mirror splits his face in two. A line of people in their underwear jump simultaneously into a pool. A doctor’s diplomas and citations outgrow his office and encroach upon the ceiling. A knight in armor quests for milk for his cereal. All of these images are good images. All of them served the film well during one of the few trailers of the past several years to do what a trailer ought; which is reveal nothing about the plot and yet spark an instant desire to see the film. And all of these images were called for by the plot. Well, almost. Some of them. If you squint.

That said, Braff should definitely not scale back his ambitions to here-and-there acting career he was enjoying previously. While Garden State has touches of the kind of semi-autobiography which sometimes warn that a writer has nothing else up his sleeve, the characters he creates are effortlessly endearing and as a director he shows an undeniable eye for the place were the absurd and mundane intersect.

Thoughtful people will enjoy this film. Then they will go home and realize that the emotions and the images don’t quite hold up to careful scrutiny. But that’s okay, because thoughtful people need their eye candy too. Hopefully, now that Braff has been able to work off some of his extraneous imagery, he can apply himself to finding a better balance between glib and honest, emotion and visualization, and keep the same keen eye and appealing characters he’s given us here.

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