Here we have two writer-directors telling coming-of-age stories starring TV stars who are trying to give off a semi-leading-man feature vibe while projecting angst and alienation.
Making his debut, writer-director Jonathan Kasden gives us our latest combatant, In the Land of Women, to take on writer-director Zach Braff’s Garden State. Braff goes Kasden one better (or at least one more) in that he also cast himself as the lead, while Kasden (son of Lawrence) went with Adam Brody. Both lead characters are Hollywood wannabe’s: Braff’s character wants to make it as an actor, and Brody’s character wants to make it as a writer. Here’s the question. Did In the Land of Women build a better film on the lessons of Garden State, or did it just manage to be a weaker version of the original?
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You’ve seen Adam Brody as the comic-loving, caffeinated nerd of The O.C., who eventually wised up, got hunkier, and started dating the hot chick of the series. In this film, In the Land of Women, he’s Carter Webb, an LA writer of softcore porn who wants to write “real” novels and other important work. After his extremely hot girlfriend dumps him, he ends up in Michigan because of an ailing grandmother, gets to know the woman across the street — Sarah — a woman who looks a lot like Meg Ryan with a facelift and her lips done. He also gets to know her daughter, Lucy, played by Kristen Stewart. In the original cut of the film, Carter ends up sleeping with Sarah the night before she has a mastectomy. Audiences went berserk, and it was cut. The studio demanded certain changes, shall we say. As I understand it, Kasden Senior, who produced the film, said he’d fix it, reminded everyone of his writing credits, and demanded to know what they’d written lately. The executive said, “The check.” The studio got its way, whether that was good or bad.
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The Defending Champion
Garden State was Zach Braff’s feature-film coming out party where he did everything on the film except fill in for craft services (and I’m not even so sure about that). He plays Andrew Largeman (“Large” for short), a not-so-successful actor from LA who goes home to his New Jersey town to bury his mother. He ends up reconnecting with his high-school buddies, getting off the medications his psychiatrist Dad (Ian Holm) has had him on, and finding a kindred spirit in Sam (played by Natalie Portman), a beautiful space cadet come to planet Earth in the nick of time. Braff really knew his emotional stuff for this one; maybe part of his psyche was still waiting tables as he did when he first came to Hollywood, and he did Garden State partly to capture that feeling.
I could be wrong but it really feels to me like there is little doubt that Kasden/Brody, et al., set out to make the new Garden State. Soulful slacker — check. Banter — check. Characters in the film biz — check. Garden State is the kind of film that just kept getting better the longer you watched. In the Land of Women seemed to fall apart a bit more the longer you watched. It also jumps a bit, something that had to be aggravated by the radical script surgery required to stop Brody from having sex with Ryan on the eve of breast surgery and chemotherapy. There are compensating good parts to In the Land of Women. In its best scenes there’s a gentle humor to it all. But, really people, seeing these back-to-back you realize how low the standard for tough manhood has fallen. Both Braff and Brody exude an adolescent vibe that is sensitive beyond belief. When Brody gets punched out by a bully, he doesn’t punch back. He makes a witty retort and the girl he came to the party with gets him out of there while some other kid stands up for him.
And the winner is…
If you’re trying to beat the champ, you need a knockout. Even on points, though, Garden State clobbers the competition. It’s edgy, sweet, funny, ironic and original. I’ve seen it twice now and I’m still looking forward to seeing it again.