Unhappynothankyoulessplease or Why Garden State Is A Great Film: Part I

Happythankyoumoreplease is everything Garden State is not. Which is not a compliment. It’s the kind of indie movie people wrongly think all indie movies are. Whiny, selfish characters who are too busy pretending to be unloved to spend two seconds actually connecting with anyone else in the film. Music that tells us how to feel about a scene. A token minority. Self indulgent upper-middle class who think their huge apartments show how urban they are if at least one wall is exposed brick. Not all indie films are so patronizing to their viewers.

Indie film can be genuine. A glaring contrast to the spectacle of Hollywood. Character studies which carry narrative with a purpose, and are often presented with a mild touch. HTYMP is not one of those films and as I watched it I couldn’t help thinking about Zach Braff’s Garden State. I’ll get to that in part II. But first, I want to tell you why, for me, it’s Unhappynothankyoulessplease.

It could have been passable if the script had been edited to the focus on the titular theme of saying thanks in your life. It could have been watchable if the actors had been given the attention they needed to get through the thick, saccharine script. It may have even been enjoyable if Radnor had given the script to someone more adept at directing. If all of these things had been done, it could have even been lovely.

The script was inside out. Every moment of nuance and subtly that should have been on the outside was hidden. And every big, emotional, raw nerve dangled on the outside like some bad science experiment. It was inverted. Many of the scenes came in too early and left just as an important moment might have led to something more interesting. It was fragmented. Every scene felt as if it were made up of moments instead of the whole film being gathered into a cohesive theme. This feeling extended to the characters.

Every character seemed portioned into opposing sections. Quirky but sexy. Strange and cute. Lost but inspired. All without nuance or depth so that each portion seemed pasted right there on the screen. A crazy decoupage of attributes, an attempt to achieve perfect flaws. No one develops, they just are or aren’t. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch fragments of characters. A feeling unfortunately intensified by the directing.

Directors that cut up every scene into close single shots are either first year film students or they can’t get their a-list cast in the same room at the same time. Wager a guess on which category Radnor falls in? If a scene isn’t dynamic in its action then it must be twice as dynamic in character development. And in order to see that character development, you must be able to see the actors. Not just one. Then the other. Then back to the first one. You should be able to see them bounce off each other, feel the dynamics of the story under the actors’ flesh. Seeing the whole picture gives a mood. I’m not suggesting long, technically arduous, takes. Especially in scenes with a child actor. But instead of watching characters do, it felt like watching actors act. Every scene in HTYMP is too close, too detailed, too claustrophobic. Too fragmented.

An actor does subtle things to communicate his character. He wishes everyone would notice these things he’s tried so hard to make a nuanced part of his performance. So when he becomes a director he focuses in on every subtle thing his actors do,  thereby rendering these actions pointless because the audience is too busy wondering why they should care about the actor’s smile when what they really want to know is where the scene is taking place. We don’t need to see her eyes glimmer in every reaction shot. Or a comical eye roll. Or a faux boy-next-door expression. What we need isn’t the detail of each individual, we need the whole picture. That way, when you do focus, it becomes an important beat in the conversation. That is subtly.

But nothing was subtle here, it was heavy. The locations telegraphed character instead of expressing it. The dialog hung in the air in much the same way bricks don’t. And any moment which could have possibly grown character development was in the deleted scenes. Who was the boy, Rasheen? Deleted scene. Was there more to Annie and Sam? Deleted scene. Was there anything more to arguing the couple played by Zoe Kazan and Pablo Schreiber? Deleted scene. And it was their only interesting scene.

The arguing couple are in a story bubble, connected only by the smallest sinew to the rest of the film. Their conflict is petty, hackneyed, and oversimplified. It sounds like dialog from a high school play. In the deleted scene, they argue loudly as they walk down the street but stop abruptly when they see a paraplegic man who has overheard them. For two seconds it seemed as if they might realize there was a world outside of their insipid problems, their bickering. But the scene was cut, leaving them as they were before. Nothing learned. Nothing gained.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible to hate Zoe Kazan after watching the very lovely and quiet The Exploding Girl . But she could not have seemed less like someone who would be in a relationship with Schreiber or more like a high school student trying to play an adult. Radnor managed to take her genuine charm and kill it. Not mostly dead. Look-through-its-clothes-for-change dead.

Only remotely tolerable were Malin Akerman as Annie and Tony Hale as Sam #2, who did the best they could. But their storyline was so telegraphed and their characters were so flat, no award-winning performance could have made it less cliché.

Radnor wanted Annie to be the character to tell the audience to be happy, ask for more in life. He wanted her to talk about being grateful. He wanted her to tell the audience to love someone for more than what they look like. Forced her to constantly give a meaning to the story it hadn’t earned like she had Pollyanna-Tourette’s syndrome. On top of that Radnor tried to make Annie interesting. He tried so hard. She had I’m quirky! written all over her with no actual purpose for those quirks to be used in the plot or even to the benefit of her character. The most obvious being alopecia. This was no random, benign, attribute. It was set up as the whole core of her character. When we first meet her she’s throwing a party to talk with her friends about the condition. This creates major plot issues for the overall story but fine, at least it started out as interesting. Let’s see why this choice was made. Let’s see how it creates conflict in Annie’s life which impacts the overall story. Oh wait. It doesn’t. Radnor abandons this issue when it actually becomes worth delving into. Her condition comes off as aggressive manipulation. Women with and without hair feel unloved for many reasons but because she had a physical reason Radnor didn’t have to do any of the hard work to give her actual depth.

Worse than all of that is the setup of Tony Hale’s Sam #2,  the only character in the story who shows more than a vague interest in her, including Radnor as her so-called best friend. Sam #2 confesses his feelings. Does she see beyond what he looks like just as she wants others to see her? No. She’s repulsed by him. Which completely undermines every part of who her character has been set up to be and subverts his reason for liking her in the first place. He thought she was kind and lovely. Instead she’s insulting. Until that moment I had been cheering for her character to find the love she was seeking in a form other than the jerks she’d been whining about. But when that love appeared she laughed in its face. The only character then left to bother with was the man sitting across the table from her. Maybe he would shout some sense into her, hold up a mirror on her hypocritical behavior. No. He asked her to close her eyes so she could see him as someone she could be with. What a brilliant way for two exaggerated, unrealistic, and unsympathetic characters to start a horrible relationship. Speaking of which…

The main story is supposed to be between Sam and Mississippi. Yes, that’s right. Her name is Mississippi. And just in case that didn’t make you realize she’s quirky, so you should like her, there are repetitive shots of her smiling and making a face which desperately reads “I’m feisty and smart enough for you to want to have sex with, but not enough for me to realize you’re an insufferable twit.” Kate Mara has only a single moment in the film when you see a glimmer of who she could be as an actress. It was also the only moment I thought the script might develop an actual story worth telling.

Mississippi has one condition before she agrees to have sex with Sam in the drunken pact he makes with her that they’ll live together for three days so it can be more than a one night stand. Let’s quickly forget the stupidity of the plot revealed in that sentence and move on. She looks up at Sam, in a moment which somehow manages to resemble actual human fragility, and says she’s been through some rough times. She needs him to be nice to her. For those two seconds, there was hope. Then he lied, they had sex, and the only reason to care was lost forever.

The morning after, he wakes and — horror upon horrors — she’s still there! We are supposed to be sympathetic. Sam, what did you do? Silly boy! Why would you make such a crazy deal. Oh man, you have a lot to learn. I’m sure a few songs from indie singer Jaymay will help you. And that and a kid you took from the subway, he’ll teach you the meaning of life or something. Oh, I didn’t mention the kid he has in his apartment?

Supposedly that’s a part of the plot but it’s so underdeveloped I didn’t see the point of mentioning it. It was clearly intended to matter but it easily becomes obvious the kid is only around to make you think the protagonist, played by Radnor, is interesting and will learn something deep. Don’t worry, he’s not. And he doesn’t. He’s a jerk for most the film. But at the end– no wait, he’s still a jerk. He does the requisite last second token gesture so, you know, we should forgive his douchebaggery. He’s learned…something. The music tells us he has. The music tells us everything. Like how indie and deep the film is.

Which brings me to my last point, this film is not deep. The tag line spoken in the film “Go And Get Yourself Loved” is indicative of the pseudo-depth jammed into this film. It reeks of something one millionaire actor/director/writer says to another when the question is “Should I spend thousands of dollars making a film so everyone can see  just how damned deep I am?” With the followup question going something like, “How do you make a film?” And then two seconds later, “Nevermind, I’ll wing it.

Coming up…part II.

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About Saint

Filmmaker, Screenwriter, Cinephile, Coffee Zombie
This entry was posted in Comedy, Drama, Film, Film Genre, Independent, Netflix, Screenwriting, The Princess Bride and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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