The Plight of the First Time Director, by David Bax
Steve Conrad’s The Promotion has made me rethink my position on Garden State. Stylistically, Zach Braff’s directorial debut was a catalogue of his influences, a cinematic mixtape of sorts. For his first feature, he borrowed liberally from Mike Nichols, Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson and other directors whose films are hallmarks of the hip, young, white, male experience. But underneath, there was a story to which Braff was clearly attached. Garden State is a film with deeply felt but shallowly expressed themes.
For these reasons, I’ve long avoided joining the screaming hordes of Garden State haters, while still steering clear of the film’s legions of soundtrack-purchasing fans. I’ve been giving Braff the benefit of the doubt, assuming that his pastiche of homages (to be kind about it) was a kind of placeholder aesthetic, something to fill in the stylistic blanks until he could develop his own way of telling the stories he needs to tell.
Then, this past weekend, I saw The Promotion. Steve Conrad is also making his big feature debut with this story of two men who both want, and deserve, the manager position at a new grocery store in Chicago. Like Braff, Conrad lacks any stylistic signature. Unlike Braff, he doesn’t try to force one. So, while The Promotion is visually bland and unsophisticated, it is never visually annoying and frustrating.
There were long stretches of Garden State where, like with Ellen Page and Jason Bateman’s smugly undereducated discussions of music in Juno, I had to grit my teeth and squint to find anything enjoyable underneath. The Promotion’s visual emptiness allows the wonderful script and characters to rise to the top unabated.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is a great film. Without a strong aesthetic element, it feels incomplete. But Steve Conrad has proved that a neophyte director need not borrow to fill the gaps created by inexperience.