Eleven years ago, Zach Braff released his indie cult classic. A year later, we rewatched it and realized we’d made a huge mistake.
This article is part of 2005 Week on Noisey, where we revist all the best and worst pop culture relics from a decade ago.
Garden State was released 11 years ago, and in 2004, for a nation of despondent coming-of-agers, it was the indie breakout hit we’d been waiting for. It was a movie for those of us who didn’t have life figured out, thought a lot about how we didn’t have life figured out, and sat around talking with our fellow non-life-figuring-outers about how we didn’t have life figured out.
And this Braff guy who starred in it, the funny but brooding young doctor from Scrubs, he was just like us, the sensitive, emotionally vulnerable twenty-somethings who had a hard time feeling feelings because being in your twenties is so hard, so very hard. Braff was super sad and super bored and super unaffected and super other stuff we wanted to project onto him, which was easy since he had a charming everyman quality about him.
Braff spent most of the movie having those very deep conversations we all had in our college years—long talks about, you know, deep stuff, like God and death and losing the sense of home. He introduced us to a small cast of offbeat characters from the New Jersey suburbs, including Golden Globe-nominated actor Peter Sarsgaard. Braff’s style as a dramatic director positioned him to be the next Woody Allen.
For the male viewers who had a fondness for manic pixie dream girls, there was the film’s female lead, Natalie Portman. She was cute and quirky, with an arsenal of adorable ticks, like how she was an animal-lover with an elaborate hamster maze running throughout her house. How cool was that? In one scene, she and Braff had a burial for her dead hamster and Braff used this moment to confide in Portman that his mother had just died. We couldn’t help but feel empathy as we reflected on our own tragedies.
In one of the most memorable scenes, Braff and Portman perched at the edge of a giant, seemingly bottomless quarry, a chasm which itself was a metaphor for the vast unknowable future of adult life. They stood there in the rain, and Braff, who felt truly alive for the first time in years, let out a primal scream. It was the movie’s turning point, and in that moment, we all proverbially woke up and stopped feeling numb with him.
And then there’s the soundtrack. What a collection of hits! It was like Braff clickwheeled through your third generation iPod and cherrypicked your favorite songs from your indie music playlists and wed them with some classics like Simon & Garfunkel. Imagine the thrill we, the CMJ-attending LiveJournalists, felt about the novelty of hearing an Iron & Wine song in a big theatrical release. And covering the Postal Service, no less!
Also, who could forget the Shins scene? Portman took off her oversized headphones, because she’s a music lover, and told Braff, “You’ve gotta hear this one song. It’ll change your life.” He listened, and we heard “New Slang” capture the moment. Braff was the director who could turn you on to your new favorite band.
In the final scene, set at an airport, Braff changed his mind about leaving Portman behind, got off of his plane, and ran back to kiss her. Meanwhile Frou Frou’s “Let Go” soundtracked it perfectly.
Truly, this was a love story for a generation of indifferent romantics, with all of their fears and uncertainties.
But a year later, a much more monumental event happened. In 2005, we all sat down in our fading Kerry/Edwards T-shirts, turned off the news coverage about the ongoing wars and irreparable financial disaster George Bush was sinking us into, slid our Garden State DVDs into our PS2s, and realized: Hey, wait a minute. This movie fucking sucks.
Maybe that 2004 election was a wakeup call to the future middle-agers of America. The lights came on at the party and we all suddenly realized that we had our dicks in our hands. Because like that election, life is just one hopeless crushing defeat after another. There is, of course, nothing about life to "figure out." Or if there is, we’re not going to do it by watching a movie starring the guy who would play Chicken Little. All of a sudden, Garden State seemed like a dirty mirror in which to look at our own grotesque, rapidly aging images.
Garden State was released 11 years ago, and in 2005, for a nation of coddled adult babies, it was the indie snoozefest that had been done to death several times already and would be done many more times as a result of its success and would likely star Zooey Deschanel and/or Michael Cera. It was a movie for those of us who felt bad for ourselves, thought a lot about how we felt bad for ourselves, and sat around talking with our fellow self-feel-badders about how we felt bad for ourselves.
And this Braff guy who starred in it, the talking Q-Tip from Scrubs, he was just like us, the over-medicated, therapist-dependent twenty-somethings who had a hard time feeling feelings because wahhhhhhh. Braff was super dull and super boring and super annoying and super other stuff we wanted to project onto him, which was easy since he had the shapeless, colorless face of a blank avatar.
Braff spent most of the movie having those very trite conversations we all suffered through in our college years—blatherings about, you know, vapid privileged problems, like swimming and Coldplay and being a struggling actor. He introduced us to a cast of equally emotionally stunted characters with personality disorders and also the Bazinga! guy. Braff’s image as a mopey unintentionally comedic sensi boy positioned him to be the next David Schwimmer.
For the male viewers who had a predatory perversion for questionably aged, borderline autistic jailbait, there was the film’s male fantasy projection canvas, Natalie Portman. She was annoying and infantile with an arsenal of red flags, like the fact that her entire backyard was a cemetery for all the pets she’d killed with her gross negligence. How morbid is that? In one scene, she and Braff had a burial for her dead hamster and Braff finally said something interesting about how he paralyzed his mother who had just died. We couldn’t help but laugh hysterically as we reflected on Braff’s mumble-mouth delivery.
In one of the most ham-handed scenes, Braff and Portman perched at the edge of a very fake CGI-ed quarry, a chasm which itself was a metaphor for acting like a whiny emo virgin. They stood there in the rain, and Braff, who stopped being a baby for one second to be an even bigger baby, opened his mouth for the shot they needed for the movie poster. It was the movie’s turning point, and in that moment, we all literally woke up and checked the back of the DVD to estimate how many minutes were left.
And then there’s the soundtrack. What a collection of shit! It was like Braff pulled a bunch of rejects from a Wes Anderson movie and mashed them together with the fitting room tunes of Urban Outfitters. Imagine the thrill we, the unfuckable indie rock nerds, felt about having our boring tastes pandered to in a big theatrical release. And getting away with it, no less!
Also, who could forget that fucking Shins scene? Portman took off her oversized headphones, because she’s so deep into that alt life, and told Braff, “You’ve gotta blah bluh blah bluh bluh. It’ll bleh blah bluh your blah bluh.” He listens, and we realize that this is an entire movie based around listening to a fucking Shins song. Braff was the guy who tried to get in your pants by making you a mix CD.
In the final scene (OH THANK GOD), set at an airport because of course, Braff realized he had no other options and that dating Portman would at least be better than going back to his job at a restaurant so racist that it made white waiters dress up like Vietnamese boys, he got off of his plane which was not a likely thing to do post-9/11, and ran back to suck her face up his flaring nostrils and the two spout out a bunch of fill-in-the-blank rom-com quote bubbles, jamming the climax of the movie into 20 rushed seconds. Meanwhile that Frou Frou song you spent 99 cents on on iTunes played over the credits which felt like they would never come.
Truly, this was a love story for a generation of sexually inept sociopaths, with all of their trust funds and daddy issues.
The movie wasn’t Zach Braff’s fault. It wasn’t Natalie Portman’s, either. It was all of our faults for creating this indie cool culture inhabited by self-absorbed special pain victims that allowed pieces of narcissistic entertainment like this movie and its soundtrack to become commercially successful. We all just realized it a year too late.
Garden State was not as deep as the CGI abyss Zach Braff was screaming into. It was as shallow as the grave Natalie Portman dug for her dead hamster. It turned out it wasn't a chasm we were gazing into, it was our own navels.
Dan Ozzi owns this DVD. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi