Lena Dunham basically blew up out of nowhere after the release of her second feature, Tiny Furniture. The film had a minuscule budget, it employed a couple of her real family members as actors, and it was largely filmed in her family’s real life apartment. That’s a damned thrifty approach to filmmaking, and generally you’re going to have to add a good deal of talent to a presentation like that if it’s going to catch the attention of the powers that be in the entertainment industry—but catch their attention it did. After Dunham released Tiny Furniture, HBO came calling and essentially opened up their pocket books so that she could create her own television show, the similarly-themed Girls, which is now one of the most buzzed about things in popular culture.
Zach Braff’s career path moved in the opposite direction. His first exposure to the public’s eye came from his starring in one of the most popular series on television, Scrubs, and by the time he decided to make his own feature film, Garden State, he was already an established name. Unlike Tiny Furniture, Garden State brought fairly respectable production value to the table, its cast was full of respected actors, and in general it just felt much more like a marketable movie than Dunham’s work. And yet, despite the fact that it was generally greeted with favorable reviews upon its release, Garden State didn’t seem to do Braff’s career any favors.
To say that a big entertainment company didn’t come calling with an open checkbook is putting it lightly. In fact, Braff has had such a hard time finding someone to fund a followup film that recently he turned to his fans and asked them to foot the bill on Kickstarter—a move that has earned him quite a bit of scrutiny, considering he’s sitting on top of all of that Scrubs money.
What do they have in common?
Both Tiny Furniture and Garden State were made by young filmmakers who were bold enough to serve as writer, director, and star on the same project, both address the ennui that often hits people in their mid-twenties who imagined that they would be feeling more content and accomplished at that age than they actually are, and both focus on protagonists who are trying to make their living off of creative endeavors. It seems that in today’s world nobody just bites the bullet and gets a job anymore, and Tiny Furniture and Garden State both offer up meditations on why that is.
Perhaps the biggest thing they have in common though is that they both have very vocal denouncers who hate them so much that they go as far as to hate their creators as well. This hate is the sort of hate that often leads to hurtful things being said and wet tears being spilled.
Why is Tiny Furniture overrated?
One of the largest hurdles to get over when trying to look past your possible prejudices against Dunham in order to find something to appreciate about Tiny Furniture is that it introduces us to a protagonist who mopes, pouts, and throws tantrums like a little child, and instead of developing her past her infantile state in any way, it—if anything—just documents her slow regression further into this sad state. It gets so bad that her attempts at sleeping in the fetal-position in her mother’s bed begin to feel like symbolism for a desire to climb back into the womb. That’s kind of extreme. And gross.
Of course, just because a story features a main character who doesn’t experience any growth over the course of their documented travails doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have anything else to offer. But when a story is also as boring, boring, boring as this one, it’s a sin that looks particularly egregious. Dunham is a writer whose fans have anointed as having some sort of advanced humor or wit, but even on multiple watches I struggle to find anything in Tiny Furniture that’s even trying to be amusing. There’s a comment about something being in “the white cabinet” that produces a chuckle because the trendy apartment the film is set in exclusively has white cabinets, and there’s a quip about someone who spent one year in England coming back with a lifelong accent that rings true, but other than that we’re just subjected to scene after scene of characters who share no real connection making passive-aggressive small talk with one another. Why would anyone want to watch that? Small talk is the worst.
Okay, maybe not. Self-absorbed people are the worst—and Tiny Furniture is a film that populates itself solely with them. Everyone here is entitled, insensitive, and they view other people solely as a possible means for their immediate urges to be met. These characters are vultures, and spending so much time with them really leaves a bad taste in your mouth. If you’re going to make a movie about people like this, at least provide some commentary on their behavior or give us a relatable person whose eyes we watch their behavior through. Just shining a spotlight on assholes isn’t enough. Everyone already knows what assholes look like, and God hid them for a reason.
Why is Garden State underpraised?
The line in Garden State that Braff wrote about The Shins changing your life has gone down in infamy. It’s always the first thing people bring up when they start making fun of Garden State, and it’s generally the opening salvo in a barrage of criticisms that include phrases like “naval gazing,” “pretentious,” and “pseudo-intellectual.” But have the same tastemakers who anointed Dunham the next Queen of Cool really left Braff out to dry just because of one tone deaf line praising a rock band that didn’t prove to be all that enduring? And is Garden State really a movie that’s worth the level of hatred it receives? No, not really. In fact, it’s a promising debut for a first-time filmmaker.
The most visibly obvious reason why this thing shouldn’t be outright dismissed is its cast. Even if you’re not particularly taken by Braff’s charms, you’ve still got people like Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Jean Smart, Jackie Hoffman, Ann Dowd, and Ian Holm in supporting roles. They’re all first rate actors who do good work here, and who add a whole heap of humanity to the (perhaps excessive) quirk on display. It’s true that there are a couple one line extras who are stilted in their delivery and come off as friends being done a favor, but that’s not a big enough negative to keep that Method Man cameo where he’s running some sort of weird jerk-off ring inside the walls of a sleazy motel from being awesome. If Braff proved anything with Garden State, it’s that he has a good sense of comic timing and he knows how to direct actors.
The protagonist he portrays actually experiences some growth and goes through some changes too. He starts off as being mopey and downtrodden, and the first act of the film hammers that point home as hard as anything in Tiny Furniture does, but he doesn’t stay that way for the entirety of the movie. This isn’t a story about a character being depressed, it’s a story about a character coming out of depression—which pretty much highlights the whole point of storytelling in the first place. We don’t turn to fiction for static wallowing, we turn to fiction for inspiration. There’s already enough wallowing in real life, and not nearly as many clever quips as there are in Braff’s film. Admit it—whenever you watch Garden State you can’t help but chuckle even as you hate the sight of that dude’s stupid face.
Evening the odds.
However you feel about her as a filmmaker or an actress, as least Dunham should get credit for not trying to push her musical tastes off on us through her work. Braff, comparatively, is that guy who forces you to borrow an album and then hounds you about whether or not you’ve listened to it every time he talks to you. On the other hand, you have to admit that the soundtrack to Garden State is pretty delightful. It’s kind of hard to stay mad at Simon & Garfunkel.
Based on all of the Internet chatter, it’s not all that hard to stay mad at Dunham or Braff though. Culture pundits hate Dunham because she got handed funding by HBO, and they hate Braff because he couldn’t find funding from any of the traditional sources and successfully looked elsewhere. Is it rational for us to hate filmmakers so much that we hope they never work again and take it personally when they do? Shouldn’t we just mind our own business and ignore the stuff they make if we don’t like it?
Nah. There’s no fun in that.