Few can succeed in all three movie shoes


Natalie Portman and Zach Braff star in Braff's "Garden State.'' The film is available on DVD and VHS.

Camelot Pictures
Published: Thursday, January 6, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 10:12 p.m.
The three most important players in any given film are the director, the writer and the star. The writer comes up with the concepts and the words, the director brings them to life and gives them visual resonance, and the star conveys the emotions and sells the whole package to the audience.
It's fairly common for someone to be both writer and director, and it's slightly less common for the star to direct his or her own movie. But the trifecta, to have one person wearing all three hats, is very rare. And for good reason.
When the star is the director and the writer, it is equivalent to one government official wielding executive, legislative and judicial authority. That is to say, they call all the shots, with no opposing force to balance them out.
In some rare cases, the result is a completely original film, the likes of which has never been seen before. But most of the time, the results are weak. Because, let's face it, how likely is it for one person to be good at all three jobs?
I mention this because the new release "Garden State" is a product of such a perfectionist work ethic. Zach Braff, erstwhile sitcom star, made a breakthrough movie using all three job titles. Who knows how good it could have been if he'd had a little help.
Braff stars as Large, a heavily medicated young man who heads back home to New Jersey after his mother passes away. He has been on lithium and such for years, at the behest of his psychiatrist father, after an accident left his mother crippled. Now, as he comes home after nine years, he stops taking the drugs and begins to experience life for the first time.
If that description sounds a little maudlin, that's because the film is rather maudlin. Large meets a sprightly young woman (Natalie Portman) who is supposed to be an enchanting free spirit but is actually just irritating and hyperactive. Large mopes around New Jersey for a few days, meets old friends, falls in love, and finds himself. That, more or less, is the entire movie in a nutshell.
Braff does a good job as a director. The film has an antiseptic feel to it, neatly matching the subject matter. And he does a decent job as an actor, although his one-note character does get a little dry by the end. But his weakness is in the writing department.
As good a job as he did with making "Garden State" look good, he did just as bad a job in populating it with interesting characters and believable dialogue. Large is never fully realized as a person; he always seems like a construction of notes by a twentysomething screenwriter. Portman's role is awful, and the "deep" conversations she has with Braff had me in stitches - not the intended reaction of said conversations.
This is what happens when someone is left to run unchecked on a movie set. We get 100 minutes of his personal mealy-mouthed soul searching, set to overwhelming music that is supposed to "change your life," when it just sounds like something you hear in a Starbucks.
Braff's effort, however, is a far sight better than the last young TV personality to get full control of his own movie. The man was Tom Green, and the movie he wrote, directed, and starred in was "Freddy Got Fingered."
Green plays a man (and I use that term loosely) named Gord, who is either mentally retarded or clinically insane. The movie never tells us, instead wanting us to see Gord as a wacky class-clown-type buffoon. He aspires to be an animator, although his drawings are terrible, and he spends his days tormenting his parents and friends.
The only ambition of "Freddy Got Fingered" is to be shocking and disgusting. On this level, it succeeds. Blood and gore and bad taste are in abundance. But the film itself is a complete mess, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Tom Green isn't very good as a director, a writer or an actor.
But there are some triumphs in this tiny cluster of films. Woody Allen's classic "Annie Hall" is a perfect example. Funny and original, it broke film rules and helped to create some new ones. Of course, Woody went on to play writer/director/star many times before and after "Annie Hall" without quite the same success, but this one time he knocked it out of the park.
Warren Beatty has gone to the well three times, playing God for "Reds," "Heaven Can Wait" and, most notably, "Bulworth." Beatty comes across as more obviously vain in his efforts (although he could not be more vain than Allen, whose ego monopolizes most of his body of work), although I must admit that no one else could have made "Bulworth" quite as funny.
Though he might not get credit for being an auteur, Sylvester Stallone also pulled off the trifecta four different times in his career. There was the little-seen "Paradise Alley" and then the bulk of the "Rocky" series. Sly wrote and starred in the first picture, and then took over the director's chair as well for sequels "Rocky II, III and IV."
Rocky Balboa is the lunkhead Philly boy with a head full of boxing dreams and the heart of a lion that has the heart of TWO lions. Where "Rocky" was about his rise to glory, "Rocky 2" threw him back into the gutter, and made his re-rise to glory as painful as possible.
The later sequels were more slick and action-oriented, but "Rocky 2" shows Sly trying his best to be a filmmaker. If anything, the film is too melodramatic - Sly the writer throws in everything but the kitchen sink (disgrace, humiliation, a sick wife, potential blindness), and Sly the director doesn't know how to pick up the pace.
"Rocky 2" is a good example of what happens to almost everyone who tries to do it all - it would have been a little better if Sly had a little assistance.
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