I watched this at the impressionable age of 16, in a cinema on Fulham Road, ircc. I remember walking out stunned, thinking this was the film I would have made if I had the money or talent. I know, how very teenage, right? Most people may not have reacted as strongly, though in my bubble the film did feel like a cult hit and a generational touchstone. The themes of rebellion against chemically-induced tranquility, the hole left by an unknown life project, the comfort balm of love and family, seemed to hold a special relevance in an age which joined ironic detachment to epicurean excess.
I've been re-watching regularly since that first time in the cinema, with growing wariness. The cute jokes actually didn't grate so much as the realisation that Natalie Portman's character is at best only half-realised. The film is an extension of Andrew's experience, we don't have access to any other P.O.V. Every actor in his drama isn't a entity with a separate and complete existence. With hindsight, Sam looks like the first contemporary formulation of what became known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a phantom creation imagined by depressed indie boys looking for succor.
I have argued previously that Braff indicates what Sam's inner life may be like, and there is the suggestion that she needs Large as much as Large needs her (a grounding presence that short-circuits her compulsive lying, a fellow melancholic sharing her desire to become someone else). Watching again, that feels like an act of interpretive charity too far. Add it all up and the film provides very little explanation for why Sam would want to hook up with Large. She's just been waiting for some future boyfriend to pick her up on a ninja motorbike, and Large was the first guy to roll up and look past her quirks.
You can leave it at that, and I won't blame you, but I can't help feeling charitable towards this film. The only way to circumvent the difficulties posed by Sam is to recognise that the entire film is an expression of Andrew's subjectivity. Our only entry point into the story is its protagonist. The stylised way it's shot provides no break into reality – it's one long artful hallucination. And if you can buy-in to that (very teenage, sure) solipsism, the film's charms still retain a potency, its injunction to LIVE HERE NOW still convinces.
With repeated viewings, its artfulness, more than anything else, emerges as its strongest suit. When it first came out, a friend wiser than I pointed out how brilliant it was at revealing its significances slowly, and he was right – the balls it throws in the air are all expertly caught by the end. Particularly noticeable with this viewing was the way Mark's gift awakens a memory of Andrew's mother which wipes out years of anger at the fact she was "depressed for no reason". Also the way the inclusion of Sam's brother acts as a momentary check on the protagonist's self-obsessed brooding. Also how Andrew's LA-trained wisecracks are cut short by Sam's appeal to genuine feeling at her hamster's funeral. Also how the wallpaper-shirt gag is actually partly at Andrew's expense...
Even when its indulgences and wish-fulfillment fantasies are (deservedly) picked apart, in terms of craft the film remains impressive, and re-watching it remains a pleasure.