Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite (review)

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Freaks and Geeks

I was prepared to hate Garden State. It should be totally hateable, with its earnest acoustic indie-rock soundtrack and its earnest young actor-slash-filmmaker doing the coming-of-age, semiautobiographical, I’m-such-a-loser-but-love-me-anyway thing. It should reek of pretension under a faux modest facade. It should be so overly precious and so annoyingly “real” that you want to not toss it aside lightly but throw it with great force.

But I didn’t. It isn’t. It doesn’t. It isn’t and you don’t.
This is why I keep doing this criticism thing, I guess, why I’ll sit through a hundred movies I expect to hate and, yup, end up hating. Because then there’s the hundred and first, a movie that surprises me even though I think I’ve seen everything and nothing will ever surprise me again. Every once in a rare while, there’s a Garden State, which even though you’ve sorta kinda seen it before in the grand sense is all new and exciting and delightful in the details, goes over well-covered ground with a fresh perspective and actually points out things no one else has noticed before.

I don’t get to say this often enough, so I’m gonna just go flat out: I love, love, love this movie.

Okay, here’s the thing: Garden State is a movie that is, metaphorically and actually literally as well, about screaming at the edge of an infinite abyss in the middle of New Jersey. And not only does that not make you think this will appeal only to pot-smoking university students who think they’re making some great discovery about the world, it does, in fact, make you go, “Huh, it’s true, aren’t we all really just screaming at the edge of an infinite abyss in the middle of New Jersey?” in a completely down-to-earth, unstoned way, like it’s something you might casually say to your mother over lunch. I mean, it takes this should-be pompous metaphor and makes it authentic and genuine and simply entirely normal.

I shouldn’t say “it” — there’s no “it” here. “It” is Zach Braff, whom they say is on some TV show called Scrubs, but I’ve never seen it so I can’t vouch for that. This is all his doing: he wrote and directed and stars as Andrew Largeman, fledgling actor currently auditioning for the part of “human being.” Braff takes the mundanity that surrounds Andrew and turns it into something artfully absurd, a reality that is both heightened and also somehow diminished, like The Simpsons‘s schoolyard bully Nelson Munz is pointing at all of it — including Andrew and his own tettering sense of self — and saying “Ha ha!” and deservedly so. Andrew blends into the wallpaper, in one moment that is totally unlikely — would someone really make a shirt from fabric left over from redecorating a room? — and yet totally right, that makes you say “Yes!” and marvel that someone found a new way to explain, with just a brief visual cue, how invisible and worthless and secondhand we can all feel? Fucking brilliant. But sure, the universe can deign to notice him when, in a public restroom, all the motion-detector faucets can turn on as he walks by? Garden State is full of all sorts of off-the-cuff stuff like that, that makes you shake your head and say, Yup, that’s the universe for ya.

Of course, movies like this one wouldn’t be complete without the girl who changes the guy’s life for the better — and just once, I want one of these kinds of movies to be about the girl, but that’s all I’m gonna say about it right now, cuz it’s not Zach Braff’s fault he wasn’t born female — and here, too, it’s all good. Sam should be a cliché, certainly sounds like one from her description: a free-spirited, philosophical gamine, and oh, do we really need another one of those? But Natalie Portman (Cold Mountain, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones) makes her not someone you want to smack but someone you’d actually want to meet and would probably like if you did. (George Lucas, you are such an idiot for not taking better advantage of Portman’s talent.)

Look, avoid Garden State if you wouldn’t find some kind of existential satisfaction at screaming at the edge of an infinite abyss in the middle of New Jersey, if you don’t feel like you’re already screaming at the edge of an infinite abyss in the middle of New Jersey. If you’re not even sure what it means to be screaming at the edge of an infinite abyss in the middle of New Jersey, then you either need to skip the film entirely or get the film into your head at once. Only you can figure out for yourself which you need to do.

Heart of dorkness
The movie that Garden State made me think most of, for some reason I haven’t quite figured out yet, is Napoleon Dynamite. Both films are absurd in their own special ways, it’s true, but they come at the absurdity from opposite ends of the spectrum. Garden State, for instance, has a scene with a guy who plays a knight at Medieval Times who speaks Klingon — not on the job but as a hobby. Napoleon Dynamite would make the whole movie about that guy, but he’d have no idea what an enormous nerd he is, and that would be part of the joke.

If Garden State is about heightened reality, Napoleon Dynamite is about heightened unreality: one of its pleasures is the appreciative realization that comes from discovering that no matter how geeky you were back in high school, none of us approached the painful — and hilarious — nerdity of Napoleon Dynamite, who navigates the mean halls of Preston (Idaho) High with admirably oblivious aplomb. This endlessly and cheerily ridiculous film isn’t one I was able to get truly emotional involved with — it’s too self-possessed and too self-conscious for that, and Napoleon is not a real warm kind of guy — but it is highly intellectually involving in its schizophrenic, love/hate dissection of high school and adolescence.

See, director Jared Hess (who wrote the script with his wife, Jerusha) is working with a kind of negative nostalgia here, a kind of “Oh God high school was awful, wasn’t it?!” combined with an inescapable desire to relive it. It might be called a retro high school dystopic fantasy, one that’s half in love with the idea of yearning to be a teenager again and half eternally thankful that those days of dorkness are over. There is, on the one hand, Napoleon himself — actor Jon Heder makes one of the most impressive feature debuts of recent years here, as does Hess — who sketches imaginary creatures in his notebooks and is clueless about girls and dances with abandon and lies about girlfriends supposedly living in other states; he embodies, in his geeky freakiness, the uninhibited freedom and sheer terror of being a kid. On the other hand, there is Napoleon’s Uncle Rico (Jon Gries: The Rundown, Twin Falls Idaho), a sad man still lamenting lost high-school football championships and wishing he could go back in time with the knowledge he has now as a loser of a grownup. There is, somewhere in the middle, Napoleon’s thirtysomething brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell, another memorable screen debut), an overgrown kid who’s finally making a real attempt to grow up. And this ambivalence about adolescence exists in a neither-here-nor-there physical and temporal setting, where people have cell phones and surf the Net but dress like it’s 1984 and have top-loading VCRs and Dragonslayer posters.

It’s as if Hess, as a clued-in adult, went back in time with the knowledge he has now, and figured out that life is just about screaming at the edge of an infinite abyss in the middle of New Jersey, or Idaho, and the infinite abyss is yourself. Even if you don’t realize it.

Garden State
viewed at a public multiplex screening
rated R for language, drug use and a scene of sexuality
official site | IMDB

Napoleon Dynamite
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG for thematic elements and language
official site | IMDB

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