Written by Tom Augustine.
At what point did the tide start to turn on Zach Braff? There was a moment – somewhere around the height of the popularity of Scrubs, the comedy headlined by Braff, and the groundshaking release of Garden State, Braff’s hipster-posturing mixtape movie – where it seemed Braff was on a path to being a major figure in American pop culture. But it wasn’t to be. These days, Garden State is mostly treated with disdain, a film that featured Natalie Portman in a role that would come to define the term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ (ie. a thinly written female character that serves to further the growth of male lead character). Scrubs came to an end, and Braff featured in an episode of Punk’d where he came off… pretty badly. Then, a few years down the line, Braff drew further criticism for running a crowdfunding campaign for his follow-up feature, Wish I Was Here, in the early days of Kickstarter as a creative phenomenon. Not necessarily a great look, but nevertheless, none of these instances really seem to explain the disdain in certain circles for Braff. Perhaps it’s just a vibe, a sense that Braff’s particular, peculiar blend that manages to contain both goofy earnestness and maudlin self-seriousness just isn’t really a flavour that many can get behind.
This is all to say I’ve never really jibed with the Braff-hate. Maybe it’s lingering affection from my early teen days, when Scrubs was all the rage and I had an arsenal of JD quotes up my sleeve for any occasion, but I’ve always felt that Braff has qualities that are valuable in the toolkit of an independent American filmmaker.. He has real talent with actors, and his films feature certain directorial choices that indicate a creative with an eye for evocative storytelling. There’s frustration, there, too – his indulgent, over-written screenplays; their lily-livered, watery punchlines and an all-encompassing earnestness that often reads as a strange sort of narrative chasteness. In A Good Person, Braff’s fourth film, all of these elements are still at play.
The latest from Scrubs actor and Garden State director Zach Braff is this rote but well-meaning story of addiction and redemption. A treacly, cliche-ridden script is ultimately rescued by fiery, flinty performances from Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman, who bring the story to life in the scenes they share together.
The film tells the story of Allison (Florence Pugh), a pharmaceutical rep whose life is transformed after she causes an accident that costs the life of her soon-to-be sister-in-law and her husband. A year later, Allison is a mess – a burgeoning pill junkie living with her mother and drowning in misery. A chance encounter at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting with her now ex-fiance’s father (Morgan Freeman) offers the possibility of rescue – if the two can move past their shared baggage.
Braff’s real-life ex-partner Florence Pugh is one of the modern era’s most exciting and promising performers, a fiercely watchable talent. It is largely down to the committed, naturalistic work from her and her co-stars that ensures that A Good Person remains an engaging, even occasionally moving piece of work. Nothing here is particularly new, as A Good Person roughly follows the same story beats as many an addiction-based drama has before it – the relapses, the rock bottom, the recovery, and so on – and indeed, much of it feels rote and safe (a better-written, similar redemption story can be found in a particular one-off, feature-length episode of Euphoria, of all things). Braff seems committed to subverting the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope he helped to forge in Allison, a woman who is not so much helping other people with their problems as she is entirely defined by her problems – her guilt, her suicidal tendencies, her addiction.
It’s Braff’s direction of Pugh, then, and Pugh’s singularly committed performance, that pulls A Good Person out of a tailspin. Her flinty, compulsive work is matched by fine work from Freeman. Well into his eighties now, Freeman is a joy to watch here, reminding viewers why the actor is such a beloved fixture of American filmmaking. His Daniel is a tough, recovering alcoholic trying to hold his family together and throw out a lifeline for Allison at her darkest ebb. A Good Person really comes to life in their simplest scenes together – sitting across from each other in a diner, or at his home, and talking. Braff’s editing of these scenes is patient and rhythmic, and between the two actors something like a pulse begins to flare into being. It’s enough to lament some of Braff’s more predictable choices – his depiction of Daniel’s teenage granddaughter strains for ‘cool’ credibility, while the wonderful Molly Shannon is left flailing in her brief scenes as Allison’s mother. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Braff is firmly in formulaic territory in A Good Person – the film is perfectly watchable, with a good amount of heart. Sometimes that’s all you need – but it wouldn’t hurt Braff to step outside his comfort zone every now and then, either.
A Good Person in cinemas now.
A Good Person
Movie title: A Good Person (Braff, 2023)
Movie description: The latest from Scrubs actor and Garden State director Zach Braff is this rote but well-meaning story of addiction and redemption. A treacly, cliche-ridden script is ultimately rescued by fiery, flinty performances from Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman, who bring the story to life in the scenes they share together.
Date published: May 18, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Zach Braff
Director(s): Zach Braff
Actor(s): Florence Pugh, Morgan Freeman, Celeste O'Connor