Zach Braff’s new movie Wish I Was Here is out this week, premiering within spitting distance of a conspicuous anniversary for the actor-turned-filmmaker: It’s been almost 10 years exactly since the theatrical debut of his only other feature as a director, Garden State. Coincidentally, this summer also marks the decennial of another retroactively disdained Fox Searchlight acquisition, Jared Hess’ Napoleon Dynamite.
The two movies didn’t appear to have much in common when they debuted, one day apart from each other, at Sundance in January 2004. But they turned out to be bedfellows of sorts when Searchlight snapped them up and turned them into the unlikely cornerstones of a very successful summer. Both films began in limited release, debuting to positive reviews and gradually expanding into more markets until they grossed $44 million (Napoleon Dynamite) and $26 million (Garden State), making them two of the biggest “specialty” releases of the year and posting numbers that would still be impressive for today’s Sundance acquisitions. (Chef, this summer’s designated indie hit, will land somewhere between those two figures). At the time, both Braff and Hess seemed destined for… well, if not glory, than at least notable filmmaking careers.
Such expectations now seem quaint, given the collective work the two directors have produced in the past decade. Hess has made a total of two features since his debut: Nacho Libre, a shaggy, mostly forgotten hit for Jack Black, and Gentlemen Broncos, a swift souring of the Napoleon Dynamite style into curdled shtick. Braff, meanwhile, stayed famous, but not necessarily for the best reasons; he curated soundtracks, loyally continued to star on the waning years of Scrubs, and—as Garden State’s reputation deteriorated—became a symbol of self-involved, oversensitive white-dude gloopiness. Word of a follow-up drama co-scripted with his brother drifted in and out of the news as The Last Kiss, essentially sold as a Garden State cash-in even though Braff only starred (and, of course, soundtrack-consulted), came and went. Regardless of its quality (I haven’t yet seen it), lightning appears unlikely to strike twice for Wish I Was Here: It debuted to a less than rapturous response at Sundance following a bunch of negative publicity over Braff’s decision to partially fund the movie through a (successful) Kickstarter campaign.
And while I hesitate to put much stock in the perpetual backlash machine that is Internet consensus, it’s also probably safe to say that neither Napoleon Dynamite nor Garden State are as well regarded today as they were a decade ago. (For these films, there’s little of the nostalgic affection that’s fueled anniversary pieces for such blockbusters as Batman, Ghostbusters, and Speed.) Dynamite was embraced by a number of young people, which made it easy for it to be dismissed by older folks and then tossed out by its former fans as an ill-advised fad. (It didn’t help that Hess mounted an animated series based on the film years too late for anyone to care.) Garden State, meanwhile, hit a slightly older demographic of dewy-eyed twentysomethings but would be similarly brushed off as an embarrassing phase. Both movies now seem like perfect fits for empty recollections like VH1’s I Love The 2000s. Yet as many commonalities as they share—including, yes, being quite good—the films serve as very different snapshots not just of 2004, but of the specific age ranges their creators portrayed and initially attracted.
Napoleon Dynamite doesn’t have many on-screen signifiers of the early-to-mid-2000s, because the tiny Idaho town where it takes place seems perpetually three or four years behind the curve: Even the popular crowd doesn’t seem particularly with it, performing a late-movie choreographed skit to “Larger Than Life” by the Backstreet Boys, years after the group’s peak. The movie presents high school kids who actually act like kids, stuck in ungainly, adult-like bodies. As such, Napoleon (Jon Heder), the beanpole with the heavy lids and low voice, emerges as a prickly underdog, not a target for audience scorn. His Three Wolves Shirt fashion sense doesn’t register as ironic, and hard as it may be to believe, Napoleon Dynamite isn’t quirky for its own sake—not, anyway, to those who have known actual small-town eccentrics and other geeks.
The collection of seeming weirdos, along with a deadpan style, inspired some to call Hess a poor man’s Wes Anderson. But intentionally or not, the sketchy side characters and fixed-frame compositions of Napoleon Dynamite are more reminiscent of Terry Zwigoff. Both Napoleon and Zwigoff’s Ghost World use striking one-shots to recall comics panels; it’s just that Zwigoff’s movie takes cues from the spiky but sensitive work of Daniel Clowes, while Napoleon looks more like something a Clowes fan might draw in the margins of his history notebook. It’s less sophisticated, but not ineffective: Hess doesn’t pursue the tough truths of Ghost World, or the omnidirectional satire of Alexander Payne’s Election. Instead, he laughs with recognition at the near-universal lameness of being a teenager, and the odd moments of connection or triumph that poke through.
That recognition may be why the movie connects in a way Nacho Libre, seen by nearly twice as many people in its theatrical release, never did. It’s also probably why the scenes that focus more on Napoleon’s whiny brother Kip or his deluded Uncle Rico don’t work as well; the characters’ awkwardness is recognizable, sometimes cheaply funny, but it’s also a little easy. Then again, maybe Hess is just refusing to pretend that awkwardness disappears with graduation, and effectively counteracting the rapturous applause that greets Napoleon’s climactic dance. If there’s something a little phony about the feel-good finale, it also suggests how arbitrary high school can be: Most of the time, Napoleon following his own oddball sensibility will be met with ignorance or indifference, but once in a while, maybe his dance moves will connect. In that sense, Napoleon Dynamite makes sense as a passing fad, even though it has worth beyond novelty. Like Fox Searchlight’s similarly backlashed Juno, it finds value in the silly, probably temporary emblems teenagers grasp onto—moon boots, “incredible” brown suits, drawings of a liger—in hopes of improving their young lives.
Garden State, then, asks what happens when teenagers get better, and age into depressive twentysomethings. In its way, Braff’s movie anticipates the post-grad ennui of films like Frances Ha and shows like Girls, albeit with a more male—and more medicated—point of view. Braff plays Andrew Largeman, a mildly successful actor, on antidepressants since childhood, who returns home to New Jersey for the first time in a decade after the death of his mother. He reconnects with a high-school friend, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), and meets Sam (Natalie Portman), an epileptic liar and general lover of life. This is where you’re supposed to hit the Manic Pixie Dream Girl buzzer, but Portman makes Sam a real person, playing up her slight, fidgety discomfort in her own skin in between flights of whimsy. The two of them meet in a doctor’s waiting room, and her much-maligned enthusiasm over The Shins—the way she places her headphones over Braff’s ears saying that the song he’s about to hear will “change your life”—is a romantic moment much more about the characters than it is about the director’s musical taste. When Andrew puts the headphones on, Braff brings in the soundtrack diegetically, and cuts between one-shots of his face and Portman’s, emphasizing the way the music both isolates them and brings them together, momentarily.
Not everything about Garden State works so well. Most notably, it suffers from a bad end stretch, starting with a thematically on-the-nose confrontation between Braff and Ian Holm (playing the hero’s distant father) and including a line Braff actually says out loud about having “been on a journey these past few days.” This flows into a false-conflict finale in which Braff and Portman weep over an impending separation that is entirely unnecessary, which they then figure out, leading to a quick rush through an airport and a romantic clinch scored to a prescriptive indie-lite song called “Let Go.”
Admittedly, that all makes Garden State sound like a terrible, terrible movie. But before Braff goes too soft for his own good, his film has more visual grace, laughs, and sense of place than most romantic comedies. That’s the best way to look at Garden State: As a profound statement about how we lived in 2004, it’s thin; as a rom-com with serious undertones, it’s damn charming. Braff makes good use of heightened reality, like his all-white bedroom in Los Angeles, a “fast food knight” who eats breakfast in costume, and the way memories and dreams seem to bleed together in the opening minutes of the film. That’s more than enough to overcome the occasional mid-2000s affectations like calling things “random” all the time.
Many of Garden State’s early scenes capture the awkward rhythms of reintroducing yourself to people you used to know. I expect for fans who saw the film in 2004, rewatching it would generate similar feelings. In the 10 years since its release, the movie has taken on ex-boyfriend qualities: the guy who seemed so sensitive at the time, but in retrospect may have been a little self-centered or precious. It’s easy, if not particularly fair, to dismiss Garden State on these terms, because Braff made such a slow return to filmmaking; it will probably get even easier after his second film starring himself as an out-of-work actor making a life change hits screens. (The Shins-scored first trailer for Wish I Was Here is almost admirable in the way it owns and flaunts its Braffiness). The 10-year gap is strange for such a successful first-time director, but it’s also fitting. Maybe making a film as personal as Garden State renders other ideas inadequate, unworthy of the same personal investment.
In fact, over the past decade, failing to launch a major career off of a Searchlight-released indie success has become oddly commonplace. Little Miss Sunshine’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris took ages to follow up their debut with the largely unpleasant Ruby Sparks, a critique of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept that nonetheless manages to be just as smarmy and unfunny as any number of MPDG-featuring movies. On the other side of the scale, (500) Days Of Summer’s Marc Webb made two Spider-Man movies that were probably seen by more people in their first few weeks of release than Summer, Garden State, and Napoleon Dynamite put together, but feel utterly anonymous. Whatever the reasons for his absence, Braff, to his credit, did not angle for career advancement (or kill time) by looking for a comic book to adapt.
Indeed, as talented directors get scooped up to tinker with blockbuster franchises, it’s worth noting that both Napoleon Dynamite and Garden State are small movies, despite their cineaste reps as commodified indies whose implicit fakeness has led to them aging poorly. Despite their clear aesthetic differences, both movies function as yearbook photos—of 2004, yes, but also of two distinct phases of life that bigger movies often ignore or bungle. Hess and Braff may not have yet proven themselves lasting filmmakers, but their films capture something specific and heartfelt about their now-past experiences.
That may explain the retrospective disdain for both movies. Looking back on early experiences with the broad, aimless comedy of Napoleon and the moist-eyed rumination of Garden might involve remembering the morose faux-romantic or goony adolescent you were when you watched them. Maybe there’s something perversely correct about movies small and idiosyncratic enough to resist re-creation. A decade later, both the joy and discomfort of Napoleon Dynamite and Garden State have their place.