With “A Good Man,” Zach Braff creates an even worse manic pixie dream girl
Even with the always wonderful Florence Pugh at the helm of the addiction drama, the filmmaker can’t shake his stereotypical notions of screen femininity.
(Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead for “A Good Man.”)
When Zach Braff’s “Garden State” debuted in 2004, it did two things almost immediately: It made the first filmmaker (then best known to most audiences as the star of the sitcom “Scrubs”) a watchable indie creator; and, for added effect, sparked a debate about what kind of female characters populate such stories. They are cute! They are strange! They exist almost exclusively to help a man solve his problems! This manic pixie dream girl!
Film critic and then AV Club contributor Nathan Rabin gave this trope its name a year after the release of “Garden State” with another film, Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown.” But as Rabin noted in his essay, Braff’s “Garden State” beat Crowe to the punch, creating a character who “exists only in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly enthusiastic young men to embrace the life, its endless mysteries and adventures. .”
Two decades later, with “A Good Person,” Braff does his best to kill the trope he helped create. But instead of offering a female character with her own problems and desires who doesn’t exist solely for the sake of a man’s advances, the filmmaker chose a cheap trope for another strip: this is another narrow representation of femininity on screen, only she no cute or weird!
Instead of helping someone else (read: a male love interest) solve their problems through whimsy and silliness, Braff turned the leading lady (Florence Pugh, as well as Braff’s original MPDG, Natalie Portman, a superb actress who breathes life into into weak writing) into someone so afflicted by her own insurmountable pain that it’s a wonder she’s still alive, let alone helping a grieving man.
He’s not manic, he’s depressed. Not a pixie, practically a goblin. He’s not a dream, he’s a nightmare.
Almost two decades have passed since the release of “Garden State”. Rabin’s expression is widespread, complete with a wonderfully comprehensive Wikipedia entry as well as some clever counterexamples (we’d add Zoe Kazan’s “Ruby Sparks” to the list). And Braff is still responsible for it.
Braff also starred in the film “Garden State,” playing the depressed Andrew Largeman, who returns home to New Jersey after the death of his mother and finds himself dealing with a myriad of long-standing issues. He soon meets MPDG Sam (Portman), who is really cute, quirky, and exists almost solely to help Andrew solve his problems.
During a recent interview, the filmmaker said The independent that he modeled Sam on some of his favorite leading ladies, including Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude.
“Of course I have heard and respect the criticism, but I was a very depressed young man who imagined that a dream girl would come and save me from myself, so I wrote this character,” he said. “As I wrote, I was hoping to survive what became known as the quarter-life crisis and depression, dreaming of the perfect woman coming to save me.”
In short, yes, he built a manic pixie dream girl, “the perfect woman” who was able to “save” him (him! not even his character). With “A Good Man” Braff turns the tables: This time a woman who needs to be saved. Finally, a man helps her in this.
Sam’s problems in “Garden State” — epilepsy, compulsive lying, his estranged family — are window dressing that only serves to make him more appealing and lovable. But in “A Good Man,” Ali (Pugh) absolutely is defined because of her problems, and they are many and significant, all stemming from a car accident in which her own distraction soon leads to the death of her future sister-in-law and sweet husband.
A year later, his life completely exploded. The former drug sales superstar is out of work, without a fiance, addicted to opioids, living at home with his supportive mother, friendless, penniless, unwashed, unmotivated, and yes, very depressed. Ali tries to get clean, but finds herself being visited by Daniel (Morgan Freeman), her ex-fiancé’s father, at the local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (or Narcotics Anonymous? it’s never clear, weird for an addiction movie). his sister (the woman Ali killed in the accident).
Will they be able to forgive each other? To… save each other?
This is not a metaphorical question: both of their lives hang in the balance during this excruciating drama. It’s a movie where Florence Pugh gets smoked with a couple of sleazy local losers behind a shitty dive bar on a weekday morning, and it’s not even close to being the most common case of the movie. (Please observe the interlude of “I flush the pills down the toilet while you cry and scream,” the frantic scavenging for pills under the sink, or even a desperate dash to a local pharmacy in hopes of using her charms to con you. new recipe.)
Even with this anti-heroine, Braff can’t quite shake off his MPDG obsessions. We first meet Ali banging on the piano and singing the Velvet Underground’s “After Hours” (This is the Mo Tucker song: “Oh, one day, I know someone’s looking me in the eye / And saying, ‘Hello, it’s you mine is very special””) at her own engagement party.
We soon learn that she also pulled this trick on her first date with her fiance Nathan (Chinaza Uche), taking over a bar piano to trill while everyone else presumably fled the joint. You know the type and probably from the movies.
To kill his own trope, Braff meanders wildly, giving him nothing but problems. Cut it! More clichés! Accumulate the pain! It’s almost enough to miss the oddities, but there is no happy medium: it’s mania, or depression, and the narrow idea of what a female character can be.
Perhaps inevitably, by the end of the film, Ali’s healing journey has led him to recapture the same whims he had so viciously discarded earlier. He released an EP. He moved to the city. And she spends the last act’s funeral (yes, for the man who “saved” her) in wildly inappropriate (dare we say it, weird?) attire while making sure everyone has enough cake.
Of course, he baked it himself, and they have it very sweet.
MGM released “A Good Person” is already in cinemas.
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