arden State could be the most earnest movie of the summer. The plot: an L.A. actor goes back home; in four days, he buries his mother, falls in love, kicks prescription drugs and has various existential epiphanies about Generations X and Y. The film is a tribute to New Jersey and being in your twenties and hating your parents and doing Ecstasy because you’re bored and maybe it’ll get you laid. While some of the monologues — about "home" and "love" and "the abyss" in particular — are a little journal entry-ish, overall the film is funny, charming and smartly pretty. Motion-sensor faucets do a little dance, the Clapper insinuates itself into a tender family moment, and feelings are felt alongside a Citizen Kane fireplace, a Harold and Maude gravesite and a Showgirls swimming pool.
The writer, director and star of this $2.5 million sleeper is Zach Braff, the twenty-nine-year-old star of Scrubs. He’s been riding the press-junket wave lately (we got ten minutes on the phone with him; he spent one trying to turn off the sound on his computer). It’s clear that the endless interviews and his "Gosh, look at how many people showed up at the premiere!" blog can make him seem mock-bashful. There are, after all, only so many times you can feign humility about successfully flaunting the "traditional three-act screenplay structure." But cut him some slack; he’s busy becoming the Lloyd Dobler of the new millennium. — Ada Calhoun Garden State is about being twenty-five in this day and age. How do you account for that generation’s disaffection?
People of our generation are getting married later and later. There was a time after college when I was feeling incredibly lost and lonesome and depressed. When I talked to my friends about it I found a lot of them were feeling the same thing. And I stumbled upon this book called The Quarter Life Crisis and thought, "Ah! I must be going through a quarter-life crisis!" It’s a time of self-exploration and figuring out who you want to be — do you want to get married, do you want to have kids, do you want to travel, do you want to go get a job in a cubicle, do you want to be an artist — all these questions, it’s time to answer them in your twenties. That hit me really hard, fast, and I wasn’t expecting it to. Those themes show up in generational-longing movies from the ’90s — like Pump Up the Volume — and from the ’80s, like The Breakfast Club. What makes Garden State specifically about the 2000s?
Well, the films overlap in the sense that it’s not something new that people go through in their twenties, but a lot of what the film’s about is about what’s going on now.
The now certainly shows up in the soundtrack, which is full of evocative post-punk like the Shins. Anyway, you see all these Jersey boys driving in to New York and getting drunk in Washington Square Park and cruising Manhattan girls. Was that you?
Not really. We would do that in our town. The train ride was like an hour, so we were lazy.
The film is set in this cozy little Jersey suburb and you do a good job of showing how it isn’t actually so safe — it’s a place where people have sex with their friends’ mothers, do lots of drugs, have orgies, and steal. It’s a wild place.
I don’t think it’s particularly wild. It’s just that in any place, you can find all different types of people and all different types of things going on. They can find distractions, ways to take them out of their reality, whether it’s drugs or porn or trying to make money — it’s all escapism.
Was that true for you?
Sure, we keep ourselves so busy so we don’t stop to think about what’s making us sad at our core. Anytime you find yourself going from work to the car to the radio to make dinner to watch television to go check your email, watch a DVD, watch the midnight news, read a book and fall asleep — you haven’t allowed yourself to think about what’s going on in your life for a second and I think we all do that. There’s a hot Spin the Bottle game in the movie. Have you played that game recently?
I have played some wonderful rounds of Spin the Bottle.
What made them wonderful?
It’s just such a hot game when you play it with attractive strangers. I don’t know. It’s fun. I haven’t played it in years, but in my early twenties, it was like the thing we did at our apartment in Manhattan. We’d have parties and play Spin the Bottle. Into your early twenties?
Absolutely, that’s when it got really good.
I bet. Didn’t the game just degenerate into an orgy?
I have no comment.
Did you import that pastime from Jersey? What were your early sex experiences like?
Um… kissing girls behind trees? There’s a lot of build up to sex in the film between you and Natalie Portman, but when you finally get there, it’s just a quick cut to you two spooning afterward. Why didn’t you show more?
Watching sex in a movie always pulls me out of the movie. If there’s a pretty girl, I keep thinking, when are they going to have sex? Am I going to see her naked? How’s it going to be? And all of a sudden, you’re out of the film. You’re not watching the characters. Especially with Natalie and how many people think she’s beautiful, I thought people would be so obsessed with seeing her sexually, that it would remove them from the film. Plus, with the relationship we established between them, we didn’t want to see them have sex. We only wanted to see them in love and holding each other.
Speak for yourself!
Well, I’ll put it in the sequel.
Or the DVD. So how’d you get the R rating with no sex, was it because of the masturbating and humping dogs?
No, it was for language. You get one "fuck" for a PG-13. If you have two, you get an R. I learned that the hard way.
Despite the dearth of sex, there’s a great kissing scene (with the classic pre-kiss line: "So what do we do now?") How was it shooting that?
It was awkward, especially because I’m the director. We have that one big kiss in the rain — it’s a crane shot and I’m trying to think about kissing Natalie, which is what the scene is about, but there are cameras and rain and a million things going on, so it wasn’t as glamorous as you’d think.
Well, it looks very romantic. Have you gotten a million proposals since this movie started screening?
Yes, I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities. The good news is I’ll get to direct again . . . They’re giving me the signal now. Gotta go.
We meant marriage proposals. (click)Garden State opens July 30. n°