Saw Garden State over the weekend, a movie whose soundtrack has been rightly celebrated for its use of everyone from Iron and Wine (doing a Postal Service cover) and Simon and Garfunkel to The Shins. Unfortunately, the movie itself is nowhere the equal of its soundtrack. At first the small romantic comedy starring writer-director Zach Braff of Scrubs fame and Natalie Portman seems merely like a slight precious indy-style vanity project for Braff. Then it shortly becomes clear this is no indy, for-the-love-of-it vanity project, but an old-fashioned sucky vanity project for an actor whose writing and directing would never have merited a shooting budget or a distribution deal were he a mere mortal. Along with serious actors at his disposal (the legendary Ian Holme in a completely muted performance as Braff’s father, the fine Peter Saarsard irritatingly miscast as a small town loser), Braff has any number of serious themes to work with: the medicalization of character, serious illness, a family torn apart by a tragic accident. The result is an overcooked stew that tastes like nothing despite so many expensive, choice ingredients. The script is painfully weak, the story a thin draft of undeveloped themes and tossed-off characters and barely considered sources of conflict. This guys has no idea what he's talking about, I said to myself any number of times. I went in with optimism, thinking maybe this sharp comic actor had a deep side I could root for. I left irritated at the injustice of this movie being made in the first place.
Same weekend I caught a real indy flick, made with all the guts and ingenuity and heart that has made that whole little world romantic and compelling since Stephen Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Open Water, the much discussed little film about a couple on vacation, who while deep-sea diving are left behind by their boat, was every bit as good as its billing. Writer-director Chris Kentis takes a simple premise and freaks you out with it. Simple characters, simple setup, and whooa.
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