Shaun of the Dead
Director: Edgar Wright. Cast: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Penelope Wilton, Bill Nighy, Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran, Peter Serafinowicz, Nicola Cunningham. Screenplay: Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.

Garden State
Director: Zach Braff. Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Armando Riesco, Alex Burns, Jean Smart, Jim Parsons, Ron Leibman, Ann Dowd, Ato Essandoh, Denis O'Hare, Debbon Ayer, Method Man. Screenplay: Zach Braff.

Napoleon Dynamite
Director: Jared Hess. Cast: Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell, Sandy Martin, Shondrella Avery, Emily Kennard, Haylie Duff, Trevor Snarr, Diedrich Bader. Screenplay: Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess.

Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead boasts one of the year's best taglines: "A romantic comedy. With zombies." It's a terrific joke, at least for a film that intends the joke. Zach Braff's Garden State is also a romantic comedy, with zombies, although I'm not sure Braff really knows it. The films have a good deal else in common, principally that they both belong to that frequently queasy subgenre where young, drifting men learn to connect with their girlfriends, re-order their priorities, carpe the diem, etc. Shaun of the Dead plays a kind of con game with this basic structure: you can't tell if the filmmakers take seriously the romantic longings and arrested adolescence of the titular Shaun, or whether they're poking as much fun at the essential narcissism of the genre as they are at the conventions of the cinéma du walking-dead. Depending on your view, Shaun of the Dead is either a zombie flick masking as a comedy, or a comedy masking as a zombie flick, or Beautiful Girls masking as a zombie comedy. (Garden State is just Beautiful Girls all over again, masking as a new film.)

Different sequences in Shaun of the Dead make arguments for each possibility, and though there's all kinds of first-timer desperation and indecision dawdling around on the screen—oversold punchlines, uneasily balanced tones, unnecessary camera movements—the movie also has the cheek and the buoyancy to make a virtue out of its homespun, film-school dropout stylings. The low-level, layabout farce between Shaun and his juvenile, emphatically inert roommate Ed (Nick Frost) is clearly the heart of the movie, and both the actors and the screenplay are engaging enough to make you care about this slothful twosome. Simon Pegg, the spirited redhead who plays Shaun (and who also co-authored the picture), is an especially chipper presence, and the best joke in the film is that it never fulfills its generic obligation to push his friendship with Ed aside in favor of the obligatory girlfriend. Little else in the movie comes as a surprise. The supporting cast, all dizzy friends and daffy parents, connect all the same dots that every Working Title comedy has to hit (think Four Weddings and a Funeral, High Fidelity, Bridget Jones's Diary). The punchlines are clever, but you can usually see them coming from a few beats away, although the emergency zombie-impersonations are truly inspired. You enjoy the film without ever quite thinking that a Mr. Show sketch couldn't cover the same territory with quicker wit and a surer sense of scale. By the time the screenplay is requiring Shaun to shoot his mother point-blank while a hellish orange light pours into the neighborhood pub, the film seems to have misjudged its ratio of sincerity to spoofishness, and it doesn't have enough surprises or enough genuine smarts up its sleeve to justify the rather listless and increasingly bizarre closing act. Still, it's a fun night at the movies, with the best Dire Straits joke you've heard in a while, and the final shot is well worth waiting for.

By contrast, there are times when the final shot of Garden State seems like it's never going to arrive. Compared to Shaun of the Dead, writer-director Braff's feature debut doesn't waste any time bungling its ambitions and losing its tone. The first sequence of the movie puts Andrew Largeman (played, you guessed it, by Braff) in the middle of a distressed airplane, zoned out in his seat just as the fuselage is ripping apart and oxygen masks are falling into the hands of flailing passengers. This scene of terror in the skies is a wildly misjudged metaphor for Andrew's restive spirit, and if it weren't for The Terminal earlier this summer, Garden State would easily take the cake as the crassest and least likely appropriation of airspace anxieties in this era of Orange Alerts.

Garden State doesn't ask of Andrew what Shaun of the Dead does of its own frustrated protagonist—he doesn't have to shoot his mother, but that's because she's already dead by the time the movie begins, and she's barely in the ground before the film is already making cheap jokes at her expense. Andrew's aunt Sylvia trills an off-key, Jersey-toned "Three Times a Lady" at the funeral, and she's sewn Andrew a new shirt out of the extra wallpaper and upholstery fabric that dearly departed Mama left behind. Braff's impassive face, which he can't resist showcasing in serial but unrevealing close-ups, seems mostly intended to contrast the zaniness and petty annoyance of everything and everyone else on screen. The bad habits that Sofia Coppola indulged in Lost in Translation, dignifying her underwritten characters by humiliating and caricaturing everyone else in the film, are taken to new heights (or lows) in Garden State, which betrays an equally bald ambition to win the heart of every twentysomething ticket-buyer who wants to be assured that their tiny suburban dramas and choked, inchoate emotions are the stuff of piquant romance and Everyman tragedy. Lacking anything like Translation's gossamer cinematography, its poetic editing rhythms, or its crowning Bill Murray performance, Garden State has an equal penchant for self-commodification but with much, much less to commodify. It's dispiriting to see such a pandering, market-tested, and clunkily written picture get so puffed up with a belief in its own integrity; the movie has a Shins CD where its heart should be.

Resourceful stage actors like Ron Leibman, Jean Smart, and Denis O'Hare get squirreled away in small parts where they're helpless to combat the improbable balance of cliché and total lunacy. What we're doing at the bottom of a rainy quarry in rural Jersey (where O'Hare and his wife inhabit a solitary trailer) is never quite clear, until we discover that the whole scene is a compulsory set-up to get Andrew, his kinda-girlfriend Sam (Natalie Portman), and his kinda-best friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) bellowing out their wordless anomie. It's a perfect though unwitting metaphor for the movie, crying out with nothing to say. Portman works hard to keep things jumping with an energetic, hummingbird performance that, against all odds, manages to be more than a precious rehash of her Beautiful Girls turn. She's stuck again as the romantic daydream of a blank slate, and she's marooned in the kind of movie that thinks giving her a black African brother is a joke in itself, but she's still a vibrant presence. She almost singlehandedly saves a scene in her own pet cemetery where Braff has to force out a heavily over-written but only half-felt account of his paraplegic mother's life and death, but even she is helpless to resist Braff's sheer perversity in writing, directing, and playing a scene of romantic communion inside the bathtub where Mom gasped her final breath. Portman also seems to be the muse for Braff's grand formal gestures, appearing in his big crane shot over the neighborhood, his big special-effect backward zoom, and his slow-motion dolly shot played for faux-hipster laughs. Everything in Garden State feels canned and compulsory, all the way to the mawkish airport conclusion. When your movie not only holds up Good Will Hunting as an honored inspiration but makes the Damon-Driver romance seem like Brief Encounter by comparison, it's not a bad time to call someone with some actual experience in directing. Not everyone can be Orson Welles, Zach. As it turns out, not everyone can even be Ted Demme.

A boy could get to feeling like the art of the scrappy, youth-targeted comedy has been lost, and that's where Jared and Jerusha Hess, the husband and wife behind the breakout hit Napoleon Dynamite, start to look like minor saviors. Like Shaun of the Dead and Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite mostly implies that its youthful filmmakers may not have seen a movie made any time before Easy Rider, if not The Empire Strikes Back. Napoleon Dynamite, though, actually seems to have absorbed some of the funky eccentricities and velveteen textures of disco-era image culture into an actual do-it-yourself sensibility. The movie plays, hilariously, like Revenge of the Nerds directed by David Gordon Green, which is a formula calculus too weird to be called "stealing." The zooming pans and panoramic vistas are as funny in context as is the hysterically mannered discontent of Napoleon himself, a frizzy-haired dork who is fully, disdainfully convinced that he is way cooler than the arrogant pricks who torment him after study hall. Napoleon is right and wrong about this. True, he has a misguided way of appropriating cultural refuse and emblems of terrible taste as though they were marks of distinction. But then, the imperious pride with which he wears bad suits, tosses out kooky terms of endearment (he tells his prom date, "Your sleeves are nice—I like how they puff up"), and executes deliriously daffy dances pretty much win us over. You start wondering if your idea of cool is anywhere as cool as Napoleon's. Jon Heder, playing our avatar of sideways funkiness, has devised at least eight different frequencies of contemptuous huffs at the losers in his midst, and he has an enormously self-conscious physical vocabulary as Napoleon, yet it's still a fairly easygoing performance. Heder keeps finding new ways to animate the character, and Napoleon never settles down as a stooge, a clown, or a young rebel. He just wants to be left alone long enough to draw half-lion/half-tigers and think of new ways to totally kick ass in the theater of his mind.

Lots of people have slammed Napoleon Dynamite for condescending to its characters, and I can't say I share their concerns at all. Napoleon and his acquaintances, including his pricelessly deadpan friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez), are so sui generis that it's hard to take them as representative of some class of people the Hesses mean to stick it to. More than that, the spry joy of the filmmaking and the uncluttered liveliness of the comedy ubiquitously imply that the movie was as much fun to make as it is to watch. It's hard to imagine that a film would devise such a sublime climactic set-piece for its star character if it didn't enjoy his exuberance. Compared, say, to Wes Anderson's pictures, which often seem hell-bent on burying the pleasures of eccentric characterization beneath the piled-on layers of production design, highbrow ironies, and epicurean tastes in pop music, Napoleon Dynamite seems to shoot from the hip and to relish the spontaneity of improbable people played by game, frisky actors. There are a few overbaked performances and overstretched conceits even here—I never much warmed to Jon Gries' rendition of Uncle Rico, and the subplot involving the mail-order girlfriend LaFawnduh (!) is hardly less condescending than Garden State's African exchange student. But there's a real heart beating in this movie, which delectates in its retro aesthetic but enlivens it, too, with a new and funky point of view. Valour suits, flared pants, and skin-tight T-shirts have rarely looked so good, and the film takes such geeky pleasure in showing them off that we get caught up in the geekiness.

Shaun of the Dead wants to entertain us, but it plays things safe by finding something specific to poke fun at. It connects often enough with its audience that we're pleased, but not often enough that we're genuinely impressed, or at least I wasn't. Garden State just wants to be loved, and if we happen to express that love by plunking down for the soundtrack CD, well then, so be it. To be honest, Napoleon Dynamite also seems a little opportunistic, wishing with all of its corduroy heart to score with its audiences as a newfangled cult object. The key differences, though, are that Napoleon is legitimately funny and fresh, it doesn't glom on to any obvious formula, and the movie infectiously celebrates its own hammy weirdness. As Missy Elliot has been espousing for some time now, finding your own inner freak is a beautiful thing. I wish my inner freak were as cool as this one. Grades: Shaun: C+; Garden State: D; Napoleon: B

Awards for Garden State:
National Board of Review: Best Directorial Debut; Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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