Garden State (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I first became aware of Garden State when it caused a stir at the 2004 Sundance Festival. I later read some of the enthusiastic reviews when it was released to theaters in the early autumn. I couldn't help but notice that it was rated an astronomical 8.3 at IMDb, among the top films of all time.

Yet I avoided it.


Because there were certain warning signs that it was one of those generation-specific films that only play to the people of specific demographics or sub-generations. Watching those films inevitably represents a tedious exercise to anyone not in the club. Outsiders simply can't relate to the attitudes and the places and the moments encapsulated by generation-specific films. Carnal Knowledge, for example, was once touted as a masterpiece by American males born in 1945 or earlier, but it just induces yawns and shrugged shoulders among other viewers. In another case, guys born in the early 70s rave about Swingers as if it were the coolest movie ever made, but to anyone else it seems like a lightweight bunch of babbling from a bunch of short-bus assholes.

The Graduate is one of the most egregious examples of a film which is a prisoner of its time. It really seemed like a great movie to the people of my generation. I remembered it fondly until Tuna gave it a positive review and drew a shitstorm of responses from some younger readers. I then went back to it, and realized that I didn't like it any more either. It has a good fifteen minutes at the beginning, and an iconic ending, but is a poor to mediocre movie in between. In order to enjoy that particular film, the viewer had to be not only in the proper generation, but also in the moment. When I belonged to both, I liked the film. As best I remember, I  loved it. When the moment was gone, I was appalled that I had ever liked it at all. It was like that girl you had a crush on in high school, and then when you meet her at the reunion you can't believe that had ever been true.

Garden State was touted as "The Graduate of its Generation" - the generation born in the late 70s and early 80s. I figured if I can't even handle The Graduate of my own generation any more, how am I going to relate to The Graduate of another generation?

There were other warning signs which exacerbated my fears. Roger Ebert and James Berardinelli gave it tepid reviews, with three and two and a half stars respectively, so I thought that might indicate a generational pre-condition to enjoy the film. The British critics were generally lukewarm as well, indicating that the film is not only generation-specific, but also trapped in a specifically American point of view.

I made the wrong call. I finally got around to watching it, and it is a good movie. I can't tell you whether it rings true for anyone outside of America, but I had no trouble at all relating to the central issues and emotions.

Some circumstances in the film, it is true, are generation-specific.


none in the main film

in a film-within-the-film Tracey Antosiweicz shows some large breasts in a smoker reel

  • The young man who returns from California to his home in New Jersey is over-medicated. That is something that would not have happened in my time. We can't relate to the current fashion of placing everyone on medication for ADD or depression or something.

  • The young man's friend made a fortune by inventing something which was bought out by a big corporation. The phenomenon of instant millionaires retiring in their 20s and 30s is a relatively new one. I went back to my tenth reunion to find some very successful people, but there was nobody dripping with wealth and ready to retire.

Those circumstances are, in the main, not central to the emotional reach of the film. They are simply part of the framework used to facilitate that reach. It's a film about an outsider who comes back home (for his mother's funeral) and doesn't really fit in. He finds that the changes in his ex-classmates are just as often surprising as predictable. He has trouble relating to a stern, driven father. He finds the rest of his family to resemble space aliens. He doesn't feel "home" any more, even though he is spending time with the same people and in the same places where he was once home. In that context, he meets a nice girl, finds true love, and resolves to start dealing with life unmedicated.

There is absolutely nothing about it that us old geezers can't relate to. At its heart it is just an update of Thomas Wolfe's oft-repeated aphorism that "you can't go home again." When I watched the film, I recognized dozens and dozens of experiences that I shared when I came back to Rochester, New York after years, then decades, of absence. Hell, if I returned to Rochester right now, I'd probably still go through many experiences similar to the ones in this film. I'd see unhappy people grasping at straws to improve their lives. I'd see successful people unable to find happiness. I'd see slackers talking about their slacker children trying to get it together. I wouldn't have anything to say to my relatives. Have things ever really been any different? Although it speaks to its generation, Garden State's concerns are completely universal. It's a film about leaving the nest and trying to make a new nest. It has a good heart and a keen eye.

The reason that some critics lowballed it has nothing to do with the generation gap. It's just one of those offbeat films about quirky people. Its sense of humor is deadpan, black, and often cruelly condescending. Critics (and others) will always have polarized reactions to films like this. You'll either find the characters to be charming eccentrics, or irritatingly superior douchebags. Maybe you'll completely reverse your opinion when you watch the film again in five years. It's a personal style of film which was never intended to be a big popcorn flick, so plenty of people will find it too weird. The writer/director presents himself, flaws and all, heart on his sleeve. He's shaking your hand and introducing himself without any pandering or posturing. Some people will like him, some not.

That's just a fact of life.

I say, "Try it, you'll like it". Or at least you MIGHT like it. I did. It is one of my ten or twenty favorites for the year 2004, and I'll watch it again, even though I could be the grandpa of the whippersnappers in the story.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Commentary by writer-director-actor Zach Braff and Natalie Portman

  • Another commentary track with Braff, director of photography Lawrence Sher, editor Myron Kerstein, and production designer Judy Becker

  • 16 deleted scenes with optional commentary

  • Making-of featurette

  • Outtakes and bloopers

  • widescreen anamorphic


  • Speaking of universality, this film has absolutely nothing to do with New Jersey. The characters do not speak with recognizable Jersey accents, and nothing in the film has any special New Jersey look or feel. If you play the DVD in your home theater, and tell people the name is Badger State, you should be able to convince anyone that it takes place in Wisconsin. It's obviously not taking place in Florida, Louisiana or the Southwest, but it could be pretty much anywhere else in America, and even people from those excluded areas should find everything pretty much the same in their own home towns except the terrain.

  • I have been wrong about Natalie Portman. I'm pleased to say that she is quite natural in this film, and is obviously capable of creating an interesting and believable character. This role is a bit too broad, too self-consciously unconventional, to allow us to measure her gift for nuance, but she is making tremendous progress as an actress, and I take back whatever mean career predictions I might have made after seeing her stiff performances in those Star Wars films.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: two and a half   stars. James Berardinelli 2.5/4, Roger Ebert 3/4. These two guys were at the very low end of the spectrum. Most American critics liked it. (See Rotten Tomatoes link)

  • British consensus out of four stars: two and a half stars. Mail 5/10, Telegraph 6/10, Independent 6/10, Guardian 4/10, Times 6/10, Sun 8/10, Express 8/10, Mirror 9/10, BBC 4/5.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. Gross: $26 million. Widest release: 813 theaters. It was a big money maker, because the production budget was a modest $2.5 million dollars.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. Not a mass audience film, but a very good, very quirky movie which could well turn out to be your favorite of the year.

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