Zach Braff Is Back in New Jersey with A Good PersonMovies Reviews Zach Braff
The debut of Zach Braff’s Garden State, now nearly 20 years ago, felt like a filmmaker’s arrival, for better or for worse. Though the movie could be characterized as a more minor-key version of the antics-sentiment combination favored by Braff’s TV vehicle Scrubs, Garden State was so successful, meant so much to so many people as either a micro-generational totem or an emo punching bag, that the film transcended its side-project roots. And Braff’s first movie as writer-director continues to loom large over his career, in large part because Braff was so low-key in producing a follow-up. He went back to Scrubs, directed episodes of that show and others, and a decade passed before Wish I Was Here confirmed a lot of fear (and/or gleeful suspicion) over his actor-director self-indulgence. (Starting off on the wrong foot: It was his second movie in a row starring himself as a struggling actor.) A few years later, he quietly acquiesced to a for-hire job, directing a remake of Going in Style that many would be hard-pressed to identify as a movie that actually exists. Technically, it’s also his biggest worldwide grosser. (Perhaps Kevin Smith, whose forgettable Cop Out handily out-earned his signature Jersey-centric movies, could relate.)
A Good Person, Braff’s fourth feature as a director and third as a writer, returns him to Garden State territory–physically, if not necessarily spiritually. Once again, a drifting twentysomething protagonist crashes at the home of a parent in New Jersey and sifts through some emotional wreckage in the process. Only in this case, Allison (Florence Pugh) has some literal wreckage to contend with, too. Early in the film, her happiness with her fiancé Nathan (Chinaza Uche) is interrupted by a horrific auto accident. Nathan isn’t actually in the car, and Allison survives–but her passengers, Nathan’s sister and brother-in-law, are both killed. The movie skips forward in time to find Allison and Nathan broken up. Allison is living with her mother (Molly Shannon) and nursing a dependence on painkillers initially prescribed to aid her recovery; Ryan (Celeste O’Connor), teenage daughter of the deceased couple, is living with Nathan’s estranged father Daniel (Morgan Freeman).
Perhaps surprisingly, given Braff’s one-time facility with wistful rom-com–that’s really what Garden State is, and how it works best–the most compelling material in A Good Person has to do with Allison’s addiction to opiates, and her early-movie desperation to find new ways to procure them. Maybe it’s the novelty of seeing a Braff-penned character actually struggling with the hard work of quitting dangerous drugs, rather than triumphantly emerging unscathed from a generic overmedicated numbness, a la his best-known film (though between the two, there’s certainly an odd strain of skepticism about the medication in general).
Or, more likely, Pugh is just that good; during a bar scene where she unexpectedly reunites with a couple of former high school acquaintances, she teases out condescension, regrets, desperation and cynicism in a prickly, beguiling cycle. No shade to Natalie Portman’s boundlessly charming performance in Garden State, but it’s gratifying to see Braff write a woman this volatile, even bratty in her abdication of responsibility. In Pugh’s best scenes, the movie appears to assume her tense, charismatic, potentially self-destructive personality. Shannon, too, seems fully on board to mine both the difficulty and the dark comedy from this situation, digging into the selfishness that can come with great pain.
The degree to which A Good Person really is a guilt-ridden recovery drama has been hidden by its advertising campaign, which sells more of a Braffian live-laugh-love uplift. Unfortunately, that bill of goods is also included with the movie, and moves to the fore as Allison intersects with Daniel, a recovering alcoholic, and forges a tenuous, unexpected bond. Though Freeman does his best to imbue the film with his characteristic gravity (and yes, he gets to intone some narration, too), Daniel is a mish-mash of quirks, tragic backstory and sassy-senior shtick. He’s a model-train enthusiast, a recovering addict, a regretful abuser and a beatific believer in the power of forgiveness. Is it a spoiler that Braff has no idea how to write a scene where this guy drunkenly pulls a gun on someone? (Or no good idea, anyway.) In due course, Braff’s toughest, messiest movie spins out of his control.
A Good Person winds up with the ambition of a novel, but little of the richness. Characters who seem important (or potentially interesting) recede from the story, while the remaining figures serve as each other’s therapists as the soundtrack plunks and twinkles away. Braff subdues his visual sensibility, and if that means less luxuriating in slow-mo catharsis, it also means he mostly eschews the melancholy sight gags that dot his first two movies–Pugh pedaling around furiously on her old bicycle serving as a welcome exception. Despite a less attention-grabbing style, the ring of falseness gets louder and more intrusive as the movie goes on. Turns out, it’s a warning about an impending flight off the rails. Something Braff captured in Garden State--tooling around your hometown with time to kill–lingers here, only to be drowned out by confrontational melodrama and Things Getting Better montages. Allison has her oxycontin, and Braff has his own painkilling addiction to indie-movie incident.
Director: Zach Braff
Writer: Zach Braff
Starring: Florence Pugh, Morgan Freeman, Chinaza Uche, Celeste O’Connor, Molly Shannon
Release Date: March 24, 2023
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.