From Left: Zach Braff and Natalie Portman at the 2004 premiere of “Garden State.”
Zach Braff is trying his best to wash away the tarnish that “Garden State” has developed over the years — but that may be hard to do, regardless of how hard he scrubs.
In an interview with the Independent published Tuesday, the “Scrubs” actor defended creating the character of Sam (played by Natalie Portman) in his 2004 directorial debut, in which he also wrote and starred. “Garden State” was initially embraced by fans and critics, earning an 88% and 86% approval rate, respectively, on Rotten Tomatoes. But in the years since the film’s release, Sam has been highly criticized for being a prime example of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) trope.
“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,” Braff told the Independent.
“And so I wrote that character,” Braff added.
From Left: “Garden State” actors Jean Smart, Ian Holm, Braff, Portman and Peter Sarsgaard pose at the 2004 premiere of the film alongside executive producer Danny DeVito.
The term Manic Pixie Dream Girl was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2007 in his “Elizabethtown” review and aimed at Kristen Dunst’s character in the movie. It is meant to describe a quirky female love interest with little character development aside from her whimsy 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” in Rabin’s own words.
Rabin later wrote in a 2014 Salon piece that the term was also inspired by Portman’s Sam, “a similarly carefree nymphet who is the accessory to Zach Braff’s character development.”
“It’s an archetype, I realized, that taps into a particular male fantasy: of being saved from depression and ennui by a fantasy woman who sweeps in like a glittery breeze to save you from yourself, then disappears once her work is done,” Rabin wrote.
In “Garden State,” Braff plays Andrew Largeman, a struggling actor who returns to his New Jersey home after his mother’s death. During his time back, he meets Sam in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Their meet-cute occurs when Sam bursts out laughing when another patient’s service dog leaves its owner to hump Andrew’s leg. Once the characters begin chatting, Sam introduces Andrew to “the song that will change your life” (“New Slang” by The Shins). Andrew — depressed and wanting to deal with his symptoms without using his prescription medications — is immediately smitten by Sam and is drawn to her upbeat idiosyncrasies, eventually giving him a reason to feel something again.
“I was just copying Diane Keaton in ‘Annie Hall’ and Ruth Gordon in ‘Harold and Maude,’” Braff told the Independent of Sam. “Those were my two favorite movies growing up, and I was kind of taking those two female protagonists and melding them into Natalie Portman.”
Braff also told the outlet that the process of writing the indie film came from his battle with “something.”
“I wasn’t as extreme as Andy, but I was certainly battling my own demons. 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,” Braff said.
Despite the criticism, “I can’t really dwell on it,” Braff told the Independent.
“I mean, I just feel lucky that I get to make stuff,” he added.
“Anyone who’s ever got a bad grade on an essay from a teacher can relate – just imagine it was out there in public, you know,” he added of the backlash. “No one said being a creative person was easy, but you have to be vulnerable and authentically yourself. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Braff’s next project, “A Good Person,” premieres this week. The movie stars Morgan Freeman, Molly Shannon, and his ex-girlfriend Florence Pugh.
As for the MPDG creator, Rabin, seven years after the “Elizabethtown” review, he wrote that he was “sorry” for creating the term, calling it an “unstoppable monster” that’s been twisted and unfairly used since its creation. Although Rabin seems to stand by his opinion of Portman’s Sam, he explained that some offbeat female characters like “Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall or Katharine Hepburn in ‘Bringing Up Baby,’” have been unfairly lumped into the “sexist” trope.
“It doesn’t make sense that a character as nuanced and unforgettable as Annie Hall could exist solely to cheer up Alvy Singer [Woody Allen],” Rabin wrote. “Allen based a lot of Annie Hall on Diane Keaton, who, as far as I know, is a real person and not a ridiculous male fantasy.”