If you didn’t see I Heart Huckabees over fall break, you’ve missed the latest and most definitive installment in what has been a long string of movies defining a new American genre, which I will call (in appropriate pseudo-irony) Absurd Existentialism. I Heart Huckabees is the perfect poster film of this new genre: cynical but desperately hopeful, tongue-in-cheek but totally honest. Like other films of this genre, it doesn’t take its main characters too seriously, endowing them with ridiculous faults and allowing them to be losers a lot of the time; they are near-caricatures who speak in an absurd, self-mocking, unrealistic babble that is an amalgam of fast-paced 1950s film noir and user manual, but they also have sincere feelings and reactions to their existential conundrums. Unlike many comedies – for example, anything by Woody Allen, and anything before 1980 with the exception of The Munsters – the film’s humor comes not from absurd situations, but from the implication of an entire world of absurdity, which seems all the more absurd for the writer-director’s ironic detachment. It’s cool, in that it addresses overwhelming, human despair with an intelligent and self-mocking attitude; but it’s not so cool that it doesn’t try just a little too hard.
Also trying too hard, but without, ultimately, taking itself lightly enough or answering any real questions, is my favorite example of a complete failure of the genre: Garden State. Don’t get me wrong, Garden State isn’t that bad; it’s just really not good enough to be what it wants to be. If you haven’t seen it, go see it this week at UFO. Don’t be fooled by the movie’s status as “independent” film. Garden State is to Hollywood as Good Charlotte is to MTV.
Every artistic trend has its tiresome mainstream counterpart. For punk it was Avril Lavigne, for glam it was Boy George. (Hey, I wonder if they’re friends.) The music industry has gotten so bad they’re even creating mainstream knockoffs of mainstream trends: the original Jessica Simpson, before her primary job title became Reality TV Housewife, was created to fill Britney’s shoes; and then there’s her Reality TV Husband Nick Lachey, originally one of the 98 Street Boys, themselves nothing but the poor tween’s New Kids on the Block. I could go on and on, but the phenomenon of cheap mainstream knockoffs is not just limited to the corrupt world of MTV – what about Knoll selling cheap versions of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair, or the Queer Eye gang knocking off not-quite-right Rothkos left and right for the sake of some socialist ideal of easy good taste for the masses? Taco Bell spewing out an Americanized version of classic Mexican cuisine? Urban Outfitters? The secret to our society is, if something works, wring it till it’s dry. Absurd Existentialism works so well it’s been recently mainstreamized by the ultimate trendy poser, Zach Braff, in Garden State.
Besides Garden State and I Heart Huckabees, this genre has blossomed in recent years with hugely successful, inventive features such as the Charlie Kaufman triumvirate Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich; Mulholland Drive; and the underappreciated Punch Drunk Love. I’d say the first of the movement were The Royal Tenenbaums and The Big Lebowski. Other forbearers of Absurd Existentialism might include cult classics Donnie Darko and Heathers. (For more examples, check out favorite movies on Thefacebook.com – I guarantee you the highest-rated movies will be Absurd Existentialist.) The movement has its existentialist roots in the French New Wave (Breathless, 400 Blows, etc.) and the New Wave’s 1960s American counterpart (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Graduate), as any critic worth his weight in references can attest to— thus the lazy statement I read in the New Yorker that Garden State is this generation’s Graduate. Blasphemy! Just because they both have inconclusive endings? Just because Dustin Hoffman and Zach Braff are equally nonplussed and not particularly hot?
Garden State fakes Absurd Existentialism. It’s on the right track: its main character, the unmagnetic Zach Braff himself, wanders through the movie’s absurd environment with a facial expression of victimized deadpan that seems appropriate for the ironic, hopeful cynicism characteristic of the genre. This expression, though, conveys not his character’s mental state so much as his own, as writer-director; another, subtle term of AE that Braff failed to pick up on is that the writer-director and the viewer must be able to wink at each other over the heads of the characters. Braff’s character is a loser, but unlike Jim Carrey’s character in Eternal Sunshine, Jason Schwartzman’s in Huckabees, or any of the characters in Lebowski, for example, he has no particular caricaturish faults for us to objectify him by. He’s a loser without any redeeming qualities, who, by enjoying complete (inexplicable) romantic success with Natalie Portman, ceases to be a loser at all. So what if she has seizures and wears a helmet that makes her look like a turtle? She’s Queen Amidala. She’s hot. He, on the other hand, is uncharismatic, uninteresting, and looks like David Duchovny gone wrong. How are we supposed to like him if we can’t even feel bad for him?
But whether you like Braff or not, the real problem with Garden State is that it’s an ’80s high school flick disguised as Absurd Existentialism. The movie is more akin to Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club than to I Heart Huckabees and Eternal Sunshine. Don’t get me wrong; I heart Molly Ringwald, and Braff has her pouty, eye-rolly thing down cold. But these ’80s teen flicks didn’t pretend to be anything than what they were: simplistic, romantic, fantasy comedies about lonely losers looking for love in the grotesque wasteland of high school. Braff is out of his league. Need more proof? Dude, three words: the bathtub scene.
I Heart Huckabees is currently playing at the Garden Theater at Nassau Street. UFO will be showing Garden State this weekend at Frist.