I was a wreck by the end of this movie; blubbering like a prize idiot. I’m not sure it will hit many people the same way, but I spoke to at least a handful of peers at Sundance that I’ve never seen shed a tear at a movie that pretty much agreed that they had to quickly rush to the bathroom after the credits and clean the shame of emotion off their faces.
It’s not a perfect movie. It does suffer a bit from a few ham-handed “sitcom” feeling moments, or “indie cliches” if you will. It also has heart and depth and just as many moments of introspection and gravity that balanced it all out for me. It deals with the slacker generation trying to prove themselves to the previous generation that would have never let their wives work while the men took care of the kids whilst pursuing their childhood fantasy careers of rock star, or space man, or actor, etc.. The “previous generation” is fantastically portrayed by Mandy Patinkin. He plays Zach Braff’s unapproving, kosher Jewish father. He is stern, but you immediately understand that even though he is embarrassed by his two underachieving sons, he only chides them because he believes they have it in them to be better (or, at least his version of better). The other issue for Patinkin’s character is that he’s dying of cancer (a fact revealed within the first minutes of the movie, no spoilers), so everyone in the movie feels the clock running out on resolving the rifts between father and sons.
This premise in any other movie with any other actors would perhaps come off as typical and dull, but the cast nails all the right moments and makes the balance between humor and emotion work. Kate Hudson plays Patinkin’s daughter-in-law (Braff’s character’s wife) and there is a scene between Patinkin and Hudson that gave me chills. A moment of clarity and wisdom is exchanged between the two of them about the situation Braff’s character finds himself in (unemployed, no opportunities on the horizon, kids that he can no longer afford to keep in private school, and a wife working herself to the bone to keep the family going while he plays around at his job), and the way these two play off each other in this scene is magical and extraordinarily moving.
The Braff character’s storyline is dealing with finding a way to interact with his two kids and feel worthy as their father. This storyline is where the most eye-rolling indie cliches could be found (they didn’t bother me, but I understand why it could turn some people off), but Braff interacts with the children in a way that I found completely charming and genuine. He starts off as a man-child, but through the process of having to home school his kids (played by Joey King and Pierce Gagnon, both delivering star level performances), he realizes there is a time to be a friend, and a time to be a father. It’s a nice arc for his character, and I would think one that resonates with a lot of men and women of my generation ('80s kids) that have made the leap into parenthood.
The other subplot deals with Braff’s brother played hilariously by Josh Gad. He’s a genius-level ultra geek that lives on the scraps of money he can earn on the Internet, and living for free in a small trailer that he inherited from their deceased mother. His story is fine, and pays off well in the end, but mostly seems to be included for comedic effect only - although there is a scene involving him and Ashley Greene that has to be pretty much every Comic Con cosplayers fantasy come true. I think one of the bigger failings of the movie is that they didn’t spent just a bit more time with Gad and Greene’s characters, to make it feel like a real budding relationship, and not just a sight gag. Then again, there are so many layers happening in the movie that perhaps that would have dragged the pace to a grinding halt. It’s a small bother, and not one that ruins the movie.
Bottom line: the shining star of this movie is Mandy Patinkin. He once told a story on the Princess Bride DVD extras about how his famous “prepare to die” speech/confrontation with the 6 fingered man was right after his own father had succumbed to cancer, and how he used that in those scenes. You can tell in his performance that he’s very familiar with the visage of a parent slowly being taken by this horrible thing. He plays those moments with bravery, humor, and a frailty that crushed me throughout the movie. Braff does a great job directing his actors and visually telling his story, but his greatest achievement was casting Mandy, and giving him this fantastic role.
I’d say that if you’re like me and are a fan of Braff’s sitcom work and of GARDEN STATE, you’ll really dig this movie. If you’ve already dug your heels in and decided that this movie isn’t for you and you know exactly what it is, then I humbly suggest giving it a chance if for nothing else seeing Patinkin and Kate Hudson knock it out of the park.