Between his starring role in Scrubs, and his auspicious directorial debut Garden State, Zach Braff was endeared to nearly an entire generation of viewers in the early/mid-2000s. However, by 2006 things were starting to slow down. I’ll never forget seeing Braff’s pensive mug staring at me that year from the posters of The Last Kiss, in a way that seemed to ape his blank-faced protagonist from Garden State. This has stuck with me because it now serves as an important harbinger of what was to come for the actor. The film drew unfavorable comparisons to Braff’s previous successes, helped exacerbate a slowly growing public backlash, and suggested that as an actor his range may be limited. Therefore, The Last Kiss serves as a great example of how remaining in one’s comfort zone can be a really bad idea, and can ultimately lead to professional marginalization.
This is not meant to be a Zach Braff hit piece. In actuality enjoy the actor quite a bit. He’s a gifted comedian who can, at times, and given the right script, also reach a unique level of sensitivity and pathos. Between Garden State’s artful posturing, and the often brilliant episodes of Scrubs, I became a convert in the early 00s. I gave into the inimitable words of Frou Frou, “Let Go,” and embraced the Braff fever that had infected the culture. As the 2000s wore on I began to compile quite a collection of product related to the actor. I bought essentially every Scrubs episode on iTunes, and then again on DVD when my computer was stolen from an ex-girlfriend’s slummy apartment. I also got myself a copy of Garden State, but in a move probably reflective of the culture, I soon lost it and moved on to other interests.
In both of his early successes Braff is a uniquely appealing film presence. While it’s true that he can be momentarily insufferable in both Scrubs and Garden State (Season 6-7 in Scrubs and towards the later sections of Garden State), both pieces of work offer a surprisingly unvarnished look at a young man attempting to find himself.
However, The Last Kiss, which functions almost as a continuation of Garden State and Scrubs, is where things began to fall apart for the Braff “brand.” The film possesses many similarities to the actor’s other roles, both thematically and aesthetically. There is the emotional immaturity and familial dysfunction, not to mention the empathetic camerawork and overbearing soundtrack. However, the characters are infinitely more dull, the themes more stunted, and the aesthetics less inspired. It’s also a film that maintains Braff’s rather annoying proclivity for trying to glean big moments from everyday scenarios. This quality is made all the more grating as it isn’t accompanied by intellectual rigor or significant use of subtext.
It’s unfair of course to blame Braff solely for The Last Kiss’s failings; the film wasn’t written or directed by the former boy wonder. However, he still influenced much of its affect, hand-picking the various music tracks included in the soundtrack, and allegedly “punching up” the dialogue of scripter Paul Haggis. Perhaps though there was nothing anyone could do, as the film’s limp-noodle plot seems like it was DOA from the beginning.
Much of this comes down to the story’s central couple of Michael and Jenna (played by Braff and Jacinda Barrett), who are so boring you feel tearful when watching them. While nowhere near as abrasive as Natalie Portman’s manic pixie dream girl Sam, who promised us all that The Shins were gonna “change our lives,” Jenna is exceedingly more colorless. She has no real motivation aside from nesting (the character is pregnant and wants to buy a house with Michael), and gravitates towards Michael for no clear, discernible reason. Unfortunately, there is also no “better-half” to the couple. Braff’s Michael is a dull stuffed-shirt, an office drone whose highlight of the week is probably bringing home leftovers from TGI Fridays or getting his pants hemmed. There is really no way to fully describe how dull this pair really is, except by saying that if they were a desert they would be a pair of stale vanilla wafers.
The Last Kiss pairs these uncompelling characters with techniques, images, and sensibilities reminiscent of Braff’s past work. Thus, it’s no surprise that the film evokes an unfavorable comparison. One of these similar techniques and sensibilities that I’m talking about is dialogue. The Last Kiss is a film that often speaks in platitudes and aphorisms. Scrubs also had a fondness for this type of grandiloquent speech, with scenes of Braff’s J.D. waxing about life being a common fixture of the show. However, Scrubs would often carry its bombastic musing to intriguing places. Some examples of this include a Season Five episode, where J.D. grapples with complexities of his hero-worship of Dr. Cox. Even more spectacular was a Season 8 episode, where the consequences of J.D.’s move from away from the Sacred Heart hospital were handled with more nuance and realism than almost all other sitcoms.
The Last Kiss is the inverse of this. In the film’s opening we get a scene that is eerily reminiscent of Scrubs’ style, yet missing the show’s efficacy for fully exploring its themes. Basically, Michael and Jenna have gathered for dinner with her parents Stephen and Anna, played by Tom Wilkinson and Blythe Danner (who both are definitely slumming it). In voice-over, Michael begins to relay the rather banal predicament in which he has found himself. Despite the fact that Jenna is apparently the… “perfect” girl, Michael is still in a malaise, unsure if he wants to fully commit even though she will soon squirt out his hobgoblin.
In another ephemeral nod to Braff’s T.V. work, this dinner scene actually contains a moment of Scrubs-like humor, the type of gawky awkwardness that Braff excels at exuding. Upon hearing of Jenna’s impending pregnancy, Stephen and Anna go into gushing parents mode, embracing the younger couple while cooing their congratulations. Instead of hugging Michael however, Anna pats him on his slicked back hair. When Goldwyn cuts to Braff it becomes abundantly clear that his character was expecting an embrace, even lifting his arms a bit in preparation for a seated hug, before pulling back in embarrassment. This is maybe the most affecting moment in the film, but it is also more than a little bizarre. This type of goofy behavior never reappears during The Last Kiss, indicating that the production had some cognizance of how Braff’s appeal had functioned in the past, but was incapable of applying it successfully in this context. The film never really returns to the material Braff discusses via voice-over. There is no parsing of what it is about Michael that makes him a commit-a-phobe. It also doesn’t address the character of Jenna, and attempt to understand why Braff perceives her to be (on paper) the perfect girl.
Now, it isn’t a fair comparison maybe to pit The Last Kiss against Scrubs. The two pieces of work belong to different mediums, and it isn’t surprising that Scrubs was more successful in working through its various themes (considering the fact that it was on the air for nearly a decade). Still, the point is that by channeling the style and tone of Braff’s past successes, but not providing strong enough substance, Goldwyn’s film leaves itself open to greater scrutiny, as what is missing is so glaringly obvious.
The Last Kiss’s final sections are also big and hollow, although they riff on Garden State’s style as opposed to Scrubs. The scene involves Braff attempting to win back Jenna, after admitting that he has stolen a smooch or two from the nubile stalker Kim (played by Rachel Bilson). This scene is the stuff of pure fantasy, featuring Michael frantically chasing Jenna down at her parent’s house, which then leads to a confrontation between the little twirp and Stephen. Trading platitude after platitude, the conversation between Braff and Wilkinson gradually becomes ridiculous. It eventually culminates with Michael saying something vague about how much he loves Jenna, to which Wilkinson’s Stephen responds with the gutbuster that if Michael doesn’t “give up” on trying to win Jenna back then he “can’t fail.”
Upon first glance, the final scene of The Last Kiss is very different from Garden State’s; yet there are similarities. Both scenes revolve around the Braff character finally committing to a leading lady. In order to get there however speechifying must ensue, and both films end ambiguously following a large, melodramatic gesture of devotion from each of Braff’s feckless protagonists. Now, most people seemed to give Garden State’s ending a pass when it was released, despite it also being defined by the pontificating nature that seeps out of The Last Kiss’s pores. Not so with the later film. Many of its big dialogue scenes being dubbed superficial or downright laughable. Even more significant however, is that scenes like the one between Wilkinson and Braff, not to mention the subsequent sequence of Michael waiting out Jenna on the deck of their home, prompt one to reevaluate the earlier film.
Exacerbating the unfortunate comparisons one draws between The Last Kiss and Braff’s earlier work, are Goldwyn’s aesthetic choices. This is another area of the film that seems to want to recapture Garden State’s lightning in a bottle, yet ultimately only manages a pathetic spark or two. There are many scenes in The Last Kiss which attempt to suggest Michael’s increasingly withdrawn nature, not to mention his reticence about moving forward with life. One of them for example features the character wander away from Commitment Central (a friend’s wedding), in order to sit alone in what appears to be a treehouse. This type of on-the-nose subtext is also all over Garden State, such as the iconic shot of Braff’s Andrew wearing a shirt that matches a bathroom’s wallpaper.
However, The Last Kiss is an utter bore to look at when compared to Braff’s earlier film. Say what you want about him, but Braff knew how to photograph a movie. Not only was Garden State well-lit, but its compositions possessed an intriguing spatial awareness and use of color. To fully visualize the much more Garden State makes of its visuals, one only needs to look at what they do with their respective locations. In both cases the locations of the film are strongly established. Hell, Goldwyn chooses to open his entire film with a straight-on shot of a Wisconsin license plate, which is so listless it threatens to melt your mind. The film doesn’t integrate its chosen location into one iota of its thematic structure however, and its predominant inclusion in the film seems to reek of something that is far from artistically pure (tax breaks).
Conversely, Garden State is (and appropriately so) taped into a sense of place. While it’s still unclear exactly what Braff was hoping to say about his home state, New Jersey came off as unequivocally distinctive. Each scene takes place in a bizarre and often disconcerting environment, which taps (at least somewhat) into Braff’s goal of crafting an intense homecoming for an already alienated character.
In the world of show business a few bad decisions can bring about an actor’s decline. Zach Braff was right to attempt to push himself into film. He was also savvy enough to realize that in a business that often feels creatively bankrupt one may need to create their own worthwhile material. Still, this professional acumen dissipated when The Last Kiss was chosen by the actor to be his follow-up to Garden State. He apparently was unaware of how when an actor repeatedly mines similar cinematic genres, styles, and ideas, a backlash becomes imminent.
Now, the backlash Braff has experienced is actually broken down into several different backlashes. As I’ve droned on about already, The Last Kiss invites comparisons to Garden State (and Scrubs). However, it does more than that. It provides a clearer picture of how some of Garden State’s formulas don’t work, and seems to dare viewers to reengage with that film’s hipster vibe and heart-on-its-sleeve candor. It seems to ask: “Are you all going to buy this again?”
As this excellent piece suggests though, the Braff backlash is more a product of an often fickle culture, which even by 2006-2007 was beginning to move away from the type of thematics that served as a launching pad for Garden State and Braff’s success. This is mainly related to how Garden State was able to capitalize on a wave of films in the early/mid 00s that made a case for the emotionally fragile and physically weak hipster male. Some of the films noted in the piece include: Napoleon Dynamite, I Heart Huckabees, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to which I would add Wes Anderson films and the entire canon of Michael Cera. When looking at Braff’s work throughout the 2000s in the context of its cultural place and time, the backlash against Braff (which began with tepid response to The Last Kiss) makes sense. The culture had moved on, and to lend his work credence would be to admit that you had not.
Now, Garden State may be a dated piece of work, but it doesn’t deserve a scathing critical reevaluation. In fact, as the linked article suggests, it deserves little to no reevaluation. That said, Braff hasn’t done his freshman effort any favors but continually unearthing the same themes, techniques and paradigms in his directorial and acting work. What’s really interesting though is that this has created a backlash not just for the film, but for Braff himself. People tend to conflate who they believe Braff to be with the various characters that grace his cinema. They see avarice there, and a type of abrasive smugness. Braff, despite making entirely innocuous films, has become a demon. He has created personal fantasy-lands where he gets to emote, play music, and sleep with Natalie Portman, Rachel Bison and (most recently) Kate Hudson, and you don’t. Even worse, he’s asking you to pay to watch him do it.
Still, despite the unfavorable comparisons it elicits, and despite the Braff backlash it helped precipitate, The Last Kiss does differ somewhat from Braff’s other work. Unlike Scrubs or Garden State, The Last Kiss is first and foremost a romantic comedy-drama. It also ardently strives to position Braff as a viable leading man, introducing some new dimensions that aren’t touched upon by the actor’s previous successes. One of these is Braff as a sexual being. In watching Scrubs and Garden State, Braff comes across as many things, but his awkwardness and asexuality are certainly among the most highlighted. He has a romantic life in both the show and the movie of course, but it’s either often played for laughs (as it is in Scrubs), or merely suggested (as it is by the ever-so-tender shot of Andrew holding Sam in bed in Garden State).
By comparison, the few moments of romance and passion in The Last Kiss are much more predominant, but also so nightmarishly awful that they will haunt you post-viewing. One of these is a scene of immense intimacy between Jenna and Michael, where the pair has a creepy tickle fight in their washed-out bedroom. It is a moment that is supposed to be endearing but is actually hair-raising due to Braff’s acting. Things become even ickier when Michael begins inspecting and commenting on Jenna’s body, emphatically exclaiming how much he loves her breasts and butt. This example illustrates how one could walk away from The Last Kiss considering Braff a boob of limited range, incapable of becoming something more than a whimsical goof or a drugged-up dreamer. This analytical view is perhaps too narrow, as Paul Haggis’s script is certainly also worthy of blame. Still, there is a strong argument to be made for Braff’s work in The Last Kiss exposing certain limitations, which the actor has seemed to surrender to as his career has progressed.
It remains unclear what will become of Zach Braff, both as an actor, and as a writer and director. He is just 40 years old, and there are many different professional trajectories that he could pursue. In judging his career up to this point however, what becomes clear is that Braff is remarkably inconsistent when it comes to having self-awareness regarding his place in show business. The man seemed to learn something from the failure of The Last Kiss. He started appearing in more diverse (and less showy) roles like The High Cost of Living and his CGI part in Oz: The Great and Powerful. Yet, the long-delayed, and infamously Kickstarter-funded Wish I Was Here (which he also wrote, directed, and starred in), signaled a reversal. That film’s release evoked the same issues that plagued him with The Last Kiss. It drew unfavorable comparisons to Garden State, provoked questions regarding his range, and added further flame to an already roaring backlash. Old insults reemerged. Braff was being lazy, antiquated, and self-indulgent. Whether or not this cultural reaction is fair depends on who you ask. But to me, it does seem that Braff, whether consciously or not, has continued to contribute to his own marginalization. This can be partially attributed to a stubborn unwillingness to see the stark reality of his business. It’s very difficult to experience consistent success when utilizing roughly the same formula. Additionally, when cultural acceptance for the artistic sensibilities that built you and made you king begins to dissipate, so too can your career.