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Hard as it may be to imagine now, Zach Braff’s directorial debut Garden State was a minor phenomenon when it was released back in 2004. Buoyed by a strong word of mouth and a Pitchfork-friendly indie-pop soundtrack, the film grossed over $35 million against a modest $2.5 million budget. All the signs at the time pointed to an enduring modern classic.
However, the intervening years have not been terribly kind of Garden State, which is now remembered with an air of mild embarrassment, largely centred around the movie’s glacially paced millennial ennui, and the characterisation of Natalie Portman as an early example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope.
Is Garden State actually a terrible movie? Re-watching the movie for this week’s edition of Beyond The Box Set, our conclusion was no – although it is a deeply flawed one. There’s no question that it was a heartfelt labour of love on the part of writer-director Braff, but this sincerity is ironically one of the major elements that has caused the movie to age poorly. He’s clearly doing everything he can to not play J.D. from Scrubs here, but his portrayal of the emotional blankness of heavily medicated depression just reads as flat and lifeless on the screen. If you take a drink every time the character stares blankly into the middle distance for 5 seconds or longer, you’ll may well have gone blind by the 30 minute mark.
Another much-mocked element of Garden State is Natalie Portman’s performance as Braff’s ‘eccentric’ love interest, a compulsive liar who bursts into his life in a whirlwind of cutesy quirks and questionable dialogue. The character is poorly written from the outset – she’s one of the most cited examples of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope – but on watching the film back, the main problem seems to be the fact that Portman was simply wrong for the part. While enormously impressive in roles such as Black Swan and Leon, Portman has a studied acting style that doesn’t lend itself well to light comedy. In her hands the character seems flakey and insincere where she should read as warm and irresistible. Throw in a total lack of chemistry with Braff, and the film’s central romance is sunk from the beginning.
This week on Beyond The Box Set we’re joined by friend of the parish Louise Ball, who weighs in on the alarming animal cruelty portrayed in the film and discusses how the (genuinely great) soundtrack misled her – and presumably many other people – into thinking the film was of equal quality. She also joins us for the challenge of pitching sequel ideas for a film that we all readily admit we have no desire to see expanded on – leading one of us to ditch the central couple altogether in favour of a sequel focusing on the much more interesting supporting characters who populate the film.
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Next week, we’re hitting the road for another Podcast crossover, in which we’ll be talking about a maligned Oscar darling that may turn out to be this generation’s version of Garden State. See you on the other side!