For many years, I thought the word disingenuous meant "not very clever". In fact it means "insincere and calculating". But it's a nuanced word, one that suggests not so much a liar as one who is bending over backwards trying to appear honest, and may even believe that he is being honest, but who is still just putting you on.
Garden State, thus, is a disingenuous film.
Writer/director Zach Braff stars as Andrew Largeman, a twentysomething actor in Los Angeles who returns to his home in suburban New Jersey after a nine-year absence to attend his mother's funeral. While there, he hangs out with his quirky friends, sees some quirky sights, and meets a cute quirky local (Natalie Portman, doing very well with a juicy role). Yes, Garden State walks that precarious tightrope over the bottomless pit of Quirk, yet Braff infuses his characters and situations with enough honest feeling - and good humor - to keep things believable. (And after all, New Jersey is a weird state.)
But nutty little observances do not a full-length feature make, and after an hour Braff gets serious as he turns away from the sight gags in order to flounder around in ponderous I'm-OK-You're-OK monologues and stale, by-the-numbers character growth. It's around this time that I realized Garden State has no actual plot. Despite Braff's often keen visual eye, his script suffers from the usual first-time screenwriter failings: too much dialogue, no dramatic tension, and a desire to educate audiences about the Meaning of Life.
I watched Garden State in a packed cinema and rarely have I seen a film so easily win the good will of its audience, only to squander it away so quickly. While almost every one of Braff's jokes scored a hit with the crowd, when it was time for all the characters to start "getting real" with each other, you could sense a communal squirming in the theatre. Most telling was the lack of applause at film's end. Even if people were mumbling "that was cute" to each other as they left, I don't think I was the only one who felt condescended to.
The funny thing is, I think Braff - who has a bumbling, Ray Romano-esque charm onscreen - truly believes in his film. There's nothing cynical about Garden State. But it suffers from Royal Tenenbaums syndrome: like Wes Anderson's overrated comedy-drama, it presumes that a stylish, kooky veneer will let it get away with the falsely-played pathos it ultimately delivers.
Points added for the casting of Peter Sarsgaard as Braff's stoned Jersey buddy: he's become one of my favorite current actors, someone whose face can project both menace and hopelessness without doing a thing. But points taken away for a mirthless, poorly edited soundtrack of out-of-date yuppie-hipster bands (Frou Frou, Zero 7, Thievery Corporation, etc.), which tries too hard to make us feel something.