[Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead for “A Good Person.”]
When Zach Braff’s “Garden State” debuted in 2004, it did two things almost instantly: It established the first-time filmmaker (then best known to most audiences as the star of the sitcom “Scrubs”) as an indie creator to watch; and, to even greater effect, kickstarted a debate about the kinds of female characters who populate such stories. They’re cute! They’re quirky! They exist almost entirely to help a man work through his problems! It’s the manic pixie dream girl!
Film critic and then-A.V. Club staffer Nathan Rabin gave that trope its name a year after the release of “Garden State” with the release of another film, Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown.” But as Rabin noted in his essay, Braff’s “Garden State” beat Crowe to the punch in creating a character who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
Two decades later with his “A Good Person,” Braff does his best kill the very trope he helped create. But instead of offering up a female character with her own problems and desires who doesn’t exist solely for a man’s advancement, the filmmaker opted for a cheap a trope of a different stripe: It’s another narrow depiction of on-screen womanhood, only she isn’t cute or quirky!
Instead of helping someone else (read: a male love interest) fix their problems through whimsy and wackiness, Braff turned his leading lady (Florence Pugh, just like Braff’s original MPDG, Natalie Portman, is a superior actress who breathes life into flimsy writing) into someone so beset with their own insurmountable pain that it’s a miracle she’s still alive, let alone assisting a sad man.
She’s not manic, she’s depressed. She’s not a pixie, she’s practically a goblin. She’s not a dream, she’s a nightmare.
In the nearly two decades since the release of “Garden State,” Rabin’s term became pervasive, complete with a wonderfully comprehensive Wikipedia entry plus some savvy counterexamples (we’d add Zoe Kazan’s “Ruby Sparks” to the list). And Braff is still answering for it.
Braff also starred in “Garden State,” casting himself as the depressed Andrew Largeman, who returns home to New Jersey after his mother dies and finds himself facing a myriad of long-gestating problems. Soon, he meets MPDG Sam (Portman), who is indeed cute, quirky, and exists almost entirely to help Andrew work through his problems.
During a recent interview, the filmmaker told The Independent that he crafted Sam in the mold of some of his favorite leading ladies including Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall” and Ruth Gordon in “Harold and Maude.”
“Of course I’ve heard and respect the criticism, but I was a very depressed young man who had this fantasy of a dream girl coming along and saving me from myself, and so I wrote that character,” he said. “As I was writing it, I was hoping I could survive what became known as the quarter-life crisis, and depression, and fantasizing that the perfect woman would come along and rescue me.”
In short, yes, he built a manic pixie dream girl, “the perfect woman” who could “rescue” him (him! not even his character). With “A Good Person,” Braff turns the tables: This time, it’s a woman who needs saving. Eventually, a man helps her do just that.
Sam’s problems in “Garden State” — epilepsy, compulsive lying, her out-there family — are window-dressing that only serves to make her more appealing and adorable. But in “A Good Person,” Ali (Pugh) is entirely defined by her problems, and they are many and major, all stemming from an opening-act car accident in which her own distraction leads to the death of her soon-to-be sister-in-law and her sweet husband.
A year later, her life has been entirely blown up. The one-time pharma sales superstar is without a job, without her fiancé, addicted to opioids, living at home with her enabler mother, friendless, penniless, unwashed, unmotivated, and, yes, very depressed. Ali attempts to get clean, only to discover that her local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (or is it Narcotics Anonymous? it’s never clear, weird for a film about addiction) is also frequented by Daniel (Morgan Freeman), the father of her former fiancé and his sister (the woman Ali killed in the accident).
Will they be able to forgive each other? To… save each other?
That’s not a metaphorical question: Both of their lives hang in the balance throughout the torturous drama. This is a film in which we see Florence Pugh smoke crack with a pair of mean local losers behind a shitty dive bar on a weekday morning, and that’s not even close to being the film’s most cliched incident. (Please hold for the”I’m throwing your pills down the toilet while you cry and scream” interlude, the frantic digging for pills under the sink trick, even a desperate run to a local pharmacy in hopes of using her waylaid charm to scam a new prescription.)
Even with this antiheroine, Braff still can’t quite shake his MPDG obsessions. We first meet Ali as she’s banging away on the piano and singing Velvet Underground’s “After Hours” (It’s the Mo Tucker song: “Oh, someday, I know someone will look into my eyes / And say, ‘Hello, you’re my very special one'”) at her own engagement party.
We soon learn that she also pulled this trick on her first date with her fiancé Nathan (Chinaza Uche), taking over a bar piano to trill while presumably everyone else fled the joint. You know the type, and probably from the movies.
To kill his own trope, Braff swerves wildly, giving her nothing but problems. Cut her down! More cliches! Pile on the pain! It’s almost enough to make us miss the quirks, 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 her to recapture some of that same whimsy she so viciously cast off before. She’s put out an EP. She’s moved to the city. And she spends the final act’s funeral service (for, yes, the man who “saved” her) dressed in wildly inappropriate (dare we say, quirky?) attire, all while making sure everyone has enough cupcakes.
She baked them herself, of course, and they’re very sweet.
An MGM release, “A Good Person” is now in theaters.