Why am I writing this right now, a blog entry that few people will ever see, on a movie that has been reviewed and analyzed to death by countless others with more credentials and experience than me?
Writing a blog gives me a sense of accomplishment, despite the fact that, since by some estimates, there is one blog for every six people on earth, blogging is rather like shouting into an abyss. Ah! What an apt topical reference, since the dvd cover of this movie, Garden State, is a shot of the three main characters shouting into what they call the “infinite abyss,” an underground cavern of indefinite depth recently uncovered by the attempted construction of a supermall just outside of Newark, New Jersey.
Zach Braff’s choice to give his twentysomething coming-of-age (or not) romantic comedy the setting of New Jersey is fitting for a number of reasons. First, as per the oft-given advice of ‘write what you know,’ Braff himself grew up in the state, and had a background and early life not unlike his alter ego, Andrew Largeman: pushed by high-powered parents, pumped full of antidepressant drugs for perceived ‘disorders’ since before puberty, and driven forward only by the vague, oft-cited dream of becoming an actor.
Second, New Jersey has a fairly long history in our culture as a byword and synecdoche for greater suburbia, dating back at least to Kevin Smith’s Clerks, which takes as its subject a similar group of comfortably numb, idle youths. While it has been made prosperous by its location within the Northeastern corridor, convenient proximity to major cities like Philadelphia and New York, abundance of ready-to-develop farmland, and string of Atlantic vacation towns, New Jersey in itself really has no reason to exist, or at least to boast the massive population it does. It is a place of strip-malls, boarding schools, office complexes, and bedroom communities, where baby boomers went to buy McMansions and plunk their families, while they communted into the city to win the bread, and where, to this day, most of their progeny still languish, living out various degraded versions of ‘the Dream.’ Though the state is by no means as socially homogenous as it is often portrayed, New Jersey remains entrenched in our minds as the quintessential example of what rabble-rouser James Howard Kuntsler calls “The Geography of Nowhere.”
And that’s precisely where Largeman and his friends find themselves, ten years or so after graduation: nowhere. Their disillusionment is palpable, and all the more humiliating and pathetic for their recognition that they have little to be disillusioned about, little justification to feel that they missed out on something, or were dealt a bad hand. After all, none of them are starving, or without a home. (it is perhaps this very inability to articulate their failures, even to remember what their vague, unrealistic dreams once were, that left Largeman’s generation doomed. What is worse, to have a plan and fail in its execution, or to never have had a plan at all? Theirs is the latter, a problem too deep and systemic to be solved even by the herculean effort of a rom-com trope like the fairy-tale ending (as we shall see).
Take Largeman’s friend Mark (played brilliantly by Peter Saarsgard). A stay-at-home son and part-time grave-digger, with ‘investments’ like Star Wars figurines and Desert Storm trading cards, who hosts parties in his parents’ circa-seventies wood-panneled rancher and hustles big box stores with fake returns for pocket money. His mother (who is romantically involved with one of her son’s former classmates, a timid clerk in a medieval-themed fast food joint who appears onscreen in full knight’s armor) keeps urging her son Mark to ‘apply himself’ and buy some ‘real-estate tapes’ to learn the biz and make a fortune, so the disfuncional family can ‘buy a yacht.’ These scenes barely require commentary. With a keen eye for the absurd, director Braff really piles the levels of unreality and dream-logic on here.
Every character in the movie, in one way or another, is floating in a fallen fantasy land—not living a life, but rather acting a part, chronically uncomfortable in his or her own skin. Early on, Largeman is pulled over by one of his old schoolchums, a former cokehead-turned police officer who, after letting him go, asks Largeman tentatively of his own macho performance, “How’d I do?”, and then quotes a Robert De Niro movie. This is characteristic of Largeman’s friends. Raised on Hollywood and having grown up insulated from the exigencies of reality, they have no references but fictional ones. Anything they do will be acting, for they’ve never had to ‘do’ anything; only play the part.
And the problem is not simply a financial one; these kids (for what else can one call them; not adults, surely) are not failures simply because they can’t find decent jobs and still live with their parents. Take the super-nerd Jesse, who earned a fortune from “the Man” through his patent on silent velcro. When Andrew and Sam visit his freshly constructed and unfurnished mansion (still in their old neighborhood, of course; no one moves away) he introduces them to his favorite pastime: shooting a flaming arrow directly up into the air, and then dodging as it plummets down upon him. When they ask what else he’s been doing lately, the lucky inventor says, “Nothing—really. I’ve never been so bored in my life.” The malaise of these people is independent of material prosperity—what they lack is not quantifiable, and their condition can’t be remedied by anything you can find at the department store or on the prescription counter.
It’s not all negative, though. These man-children and girl-women can be endearing in their childishness—like Largeman’s girlfriend Sam, who still eulogizes and buries her pets in a giant pet cematery in the back yard, next to the abandoned above-ground pool. Largeman himself, as he rides about suburbia on his grandfather’s WWII motorbike, conjures the cute image of a boy playing with his veteran father’s war trophies and paraphernalia. Except Andrew Largeman is not a boy, he’s a man; and in order to find something heroic and inspiring, he has to reach back two generations, instead of just one. That’s how removed from anything essential, immediate, purposeful, or meaning-endowing Largeman, and by extension his whole generation, is.
Andrew Largeman begins the movie asleep in a sterile apartment in LA, where he’s searching for bit acting roles and working as a waiter—in short, both figuratively and literally in a dream. He ends the movie in the arms of his true love, Sam: cue romantic kiss and swell of uplifting music—in other words, in the midst of another dream. But it all falls flat, because the couple’s last words, repeated to each other, still haunt us: “What do we do now?” “What do we do now?”
“You can be anything you want to be,” said the prosperous baby boomers to their pampered children. “Pursue your dreams.” Hey, dreaming that biggest of dreams, the American one, worked for them, right? Well, this time, it’s different, as was apparent back in 2004 when this movie released, as has only become more painfully apparent since then. And the zeitgeist that Garden State captured almost a decade ago, the ambiguous note it ended on, just keeps ringing through the youth’s ears, becoming softer and more distant with each passing year, as each graduating class takes its turn at shouting into that infinite abyss, somewhere east of eden, somewhere west of the mall, and somewhere that is no longer (because it never was) home.