Zach Braff has said that his hit movie Garden State (2004) was “a big, life-affirming, state-of-the-union address for twentysomethings.” I’m a twentysomething. His new feature, The Last Kiss, documents the mental anguish of a 29-year-old commitment-phobe. I’m at the age when commitment looms. If Braff maintains this pace, he’ll be making facile observations about our voyage through life’s milestones until he films an indie-rock-infused On Golden Pond. My only comfort is that one day, we’ll both be dead. If Zach Braff is the voice of my generation, can’t someone please crush his larynx?
Braff is known primarily as a sitcom star (Scrubs) and an indie actor-writer-director (Garden State). His most significant cultural role, though, is as Hollywood’s ambassador to the nation’s cool kids—the guy who interprets youth culture for film execs and then repackages it for popular consumption.
Want a soundtrack that hipsters will buy? Braff picked the tasteful underground hits that are slathered all over Garden State and The Last Kiss. Want to use the Internet for direct marketing? Braff helped turn Garden State into a grass-roots smash by writing regular blog posts. Need to tap in to the thoughts and speech patterns of the Ritalin Generation? Braff’s got that covered, too—he suggested additional shots and scenes for The Last Kiss and punched up the dialogue of Paul Haggis (writer/director of Crash) “to ensure that the characters sounded and behaved like men his age.”
What has Braff’s keen ear picked up about the nation’s young people? If Garden State is to be believed, they spend their days squinting and staring wistfully while slowly learning that it’s OK to feel and, like, live. When they do speak, yearbook quotes come out. For example: “Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people who miss the same imaginary place.” In The Last Kiss, Braff furrows his brow solemnly and ponders a question that’s paralyzed millions: Should I replace my incredibly hot girlfriend with an incredibly hot college student? This time, OC starlet Rachel Bilson gets the Ferris Bueller-esque pearl of wisdom: “The world is moving so fast now that we start freaking out way before our parents did because we don’t ever stop to breathe anymore.” Never has the voice of a generation had so little of substance to say.
So, why do people care about Zach Braff? Tony Goldwyn, the director of The Last Kiss, thinks it’s because he has an Everyman quality that recalls Tom Hanks. Braff’s adoring fans say he feels more like a friend than a movie star. The introductory video message on his new, Last Kiss-promoting Web site says that he doesn’t “want it to be just, like, a site about me because that’ll get boring really fast. … I want it to be about you guys, my loyal fans.” The populist shtick works—as of this writing, Braff’s got 76,072 friends on MySpace.
Braff’s doofy looks also help him seem accessible. His face doesn’t have the clean, angular lines that usually denote manly movie stardom. He’s more like a Claymation version of a matinee idol, with pinchable cheeks and permanently raised eyebrows. His dorky visage and mannerisms work marvelously on Scrubs. We root for Braff’s character, the perpetually confused Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian, because he’s such a good sport about always being the butt of the joke. Braff makes a great doormat—he can pull off both a quizzical reaction shot and a pratfall into a gigantic puddle.
The gee-whiz, aww-shucks affect that works for Braff on TV is irksome on the big screen. Perhaps that’s because in the movies he only gets beaten down emotionally—it’s much more satisfying to see him fall on his face. Though he’s got a mug made for comedy, Braff’s ambition is to be the funny-serious guy. He has said he strives to emulateManhattan and Annie Hall-era Woody Allen. If nothing else, he’s captured Allen’s self-absorption. Watching Garden State, it’s impossible not to remember that Braff is writing for himself and directing himself. As such, it’s kind of annoying that 80 percent of the shots are close-ups of Zach Braff. It’s also irritating, for that matter, that he created a role that requires Natalie Portman to fall in love with him.
If Garden State is any indication, Braff’s weaknesses as a director go beyond narcissism. In the film, he piles on quirky details—a disembodied red gas pump hanging from a car, a guy in a suit of armor, a framed diploma on the ceiling—to keep viewers from scrutinizing his shallow characters and clichéd cultural observations. Thisis the kind of movie the Zuckers would have made if they used gags in the service of drama rather than screwball comedy. Braff also uses pop songs as a cheat, an easy way to heighten the emotional impact of otherwise unremarkable moments. The music in Garden State is so load-bearing that the movie becomes ridiculous if you swap in different tunes—if you don’t believe me, check this out.
Braff is tapped in to how young people consume, if not how they think. Sure, Garden State and The Last Kiss resemble overlong iPod ads with less adventuresome music choices. But thesoundtracks that Braff compiled for both films have been remarkably successful—the Garden State CD sold more than a million copies, and The Last Kiss is currently No. 38 on Amazon. It makes sense that Braff is so popular on MySpace, a site that exists so people can list what they like—friends, celebrities, music, movies. Braff is, essentially, an aggregator. His soundtracks are lists of his favorite songs. Garden State was a list of funny anecdotes and off-kilter objects rather than a cohesive story. He might not have anything original to say, but Braff does offer this insight on our generation: We are inclined to mistake stuff for substance.
Braff’s problem is that he’s come of age at a time when we want our stars—Beyoncé, J. Lo, George Clooney—to do everything. He writes, acts, directs, DJs—next time out, he’ll probably lash a pair of cymbals between his knees. Instead of focusing on the one thing he’s good at, Braff is quitting Scrubs after this season to focus on his film career. His rumored upcoming projects reveal two possible career paths. The first: the leading role in a Fletch remake. The second: starring in, writing, directing, and producing a remake of a Danish Dogme film about a woman whose husband gets paralyzed in a car accident. Please, Zach, leave paralysis to Lars von Trier. Chevy Chase—now there’s a guy you should look up to.