Film: In Darkest Jersey

More often than not, I know exactly what I think of the films I see. I can understand why this statement might strike you as odd (after all, why wouldn’t a critic know?), but it’s not quite so simple as that. Great art is full of ambiguity: It leaves you room to make up your own mind. Commercial art, by contrast, seeks to make up your mind for you— and most American films are made for purely commercial purposes.

Until fairly recently, it cost too much to shoot a movie for any other reason, but changes in filmmaking technology have made it possible to charge the production costs of a low- budget film to a credit card or two (well, three). That’s how independent writer-directors like Whit Stillman and Kevin Smith got started, and the favorable reception of their offbeat, strongly individual movies inspired a generation of filmmakers to go their own ways. It’s also inspiring a number of big-money producers to put their checkbooks—and, no less important, their marketing savvy—behind mod­erately slick medium-budget films with a freshening touch of “independent” edge that are meant to draw younger audiences, thus having it both ways.

This is more or less how Garden State works. Written and directed by 20-something sitcom star Zach Braff (Scrubs), it’s an uneasy yoking of in­die-flick social satire with the kind of ultra-conventional romantic com­edy in which a boy and girl “meet cute” (as they say in Hollywood), fall in love, overcome all possible obstacles in an hour and a half, and live happily ever after. You can see how it could have been shot for half the money, and you can see where the extra money went—much of it, I suspect, on the salary of Natalie Port­man, who plays the Pretty Girl With a Problem. At the same time, Garden State, for all its superficial cleverness and ultimate predictability, really does succeed in saying something touch­ingly true about the unhappy lives of its youthful characters.

Braff plays Andrew Largeman, a wannabe movie star who returns to New Jersey after nine years in Hol­lywood to attend his mother’s funeral.

Quickly pulled back into the drug-sod­den social life of his high-school pals who never left home, he meets and falls in love with Sam (Natalie Port­man), a sweetly quirky Jersey girl. In the course of their hasty courtship, we learn that Andrew’s psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) has kept him on anti-de­pressants for most of his lifetime, thus blunting his capacity to feel. Andrew, however, accidentally left his medi­cine chest behind in Hollywood, and as he emerges from his mental fog, he starts to sense that there’s far more to life than his artificially induced equa­nimity—some of it good, some of it bad, all of it indispensable.

The first third of Garden State is the edgy part, and it’s keen-eyed and funny. The romantic comedy part, though way too obvious, is nicely played by Braff and Portman, who make you believe in their blossoming love in spite of your better judgment. The de­nouement, in which Andrew confronts his father, is heavily salted with thera­peutic-culture cliches, but once again you feel that something genuine is at stake and respond accordingly.

What’s missing from Garden State, not surprisingly, is a sense of the bris­tling complexity and shrinking hori­zons of adult life. It’s a young man’s view of the road to maturity: All you have to do is get in touch with your feelings and the rest will come as if by magic. What’s persuasive, by con­trast, is Braff’s darkly witty portrayal of the extent to which Andrew has been emotionally damaged by his forced withdrawal from the real world of emotion. That part of Garden State is wholly believable (in fact, it has the sharp ring of near-autobiography), and it’s what makes the film worth seeing, not merely as intelligent enter­tainment but also, I suspect, as a tell­ing document of the spiritual havoc wrought by the viciously self-centered parents of the Seventies on the lost, lonely souls who are their children.

Now it’s your turn. “Is there a little- known movie that puts a smile on your face?” I asked at the end of a recent Crisis column about old and not-so­old films deserving of wider attention. That question triggered an avalanche of incoming e-mail, ranging from the titles of individual films (Rev. Thomas Dufner likes The Friendly Persuasion) to long, painstakingly annotated lists. Chris and Regina Ciaccio and four of their five children each sent a list (the newly born Mary Rose was the only Ciaccio who failed to put in her two cents’ worth).

Two things struck me about your recommendations. The first is that none of them, amazingly enough, overlapped by so much as one film, suggesting that the readers of Crisis watch a lot of movies. The second is that many of the films you recom­mended are favorites of mine as well, and a few of them very nearly ended up on my own list, among them The Third Man, The Magnificent Ambersons, Out of the Past, and 3:10 to Yuma.

In addition, several of you men­tioned films I’ve never seen but al­ways meant to, thus piquing my curiosity still further. Mike Flach, for instance, hit the bull’s-eye three times in a row with Objective: Burma, The Flamingo Kid, and The Big Red One (the last of which stars Lee Marvin, that most critically underrated of postwar Hollywood stars). Clearly, I need to get cracking.

The longest list came from Mary Comstock, who suggested a grand to­tal of 42 films. Her wide-ranging list included such old favorites as The Big Clock,  Dark Passage, His Kind of Woman (which I only just saw for the first time), and You Can’t Take It With You, plus some films of which I hadn’t even heard. Jean Crane in Apartment for Peg­gy? Edward G. Robinson in The Hatchet Man? Take me to your video store!

I wish I could reprint your lists in toto, but there’d be no room for anything else in this issue of Crisis if I did, so instead I’ll shut my eyes and feel around in the e-mailbag. Kenneth D. Williams likes Glengarry Glen Ross (me, too) and The Player (too clever by half). Vincent J. Gatto recommends The Secret of Santa Vittoria. Kate Singh favors Our Man in Havana (how could I have forgotten that one?). Patrick Cof­fin opts for Withnail and I. Bradley A. Stoutt suggests Mister 880 (let me know if you track down a video of that one, Brad). Michael Tyson loves The Lemon Drop Kid (with Bob Hope, right?).

As for the star-struck Ciaccios, I’ll give them the last word:

  • Chris: The Night of Shooting Stars, The Devil’s Brigade, The Guns of Navarone
  • Regina: Crossing Delancey (a special favorite of mine as well—I had a full-blown crush on Amy Irving for months after I first saw it) and Penny Serenade
  • John: Body and Soul and “anything by John Wayne” (I’m with you, pilgrim.)
  • Anthony: The Hobbit
  • Theresa and Maggie: The Trouble With Angels, The Secret of Roan Inish (one of the few John Sayles films I haven’t seen, alas), and The Farmer’s Daughter.

Thanks to one and all. See you at the refreshment stand!

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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