Zach Braff’s A Good Person is a syrupy rendition of films like Ordinary People and The Sweet Hereafter.
The depressed mood in these movies saturates the screen with depictions of loss and grieving. They’re meant to provide audiences with enough psychic space to experience a spark of sorrowful recognition and, perhaps, a moment of catharsis. The genre also reinforces the idea that, at this stage in their emotional evolution, people are nearly incapable of coping with the consequences of a complicated death.
To settle the audience in for a gloomy season in suburbia, Braff flies a drone over rust-colored, autumnal trees in a suburban New Jersey neighborhood. Then the camera zooms inside someone’s basement onto a model town and train set. A pair of giant hands is seen moving human figurines from place to place. The baritone voiceover accompanying the scene compares this minute simulation of reality to that of a manipulative God inflicting his whims upon humanity.
As the film’s screenwriter and director, Braff is that manipulative artist, arranging melodramas for his characters to simulate the trials of real life. A Good Person asks if Allison (Florence Pugh), who survived a car crash in which both of her passengers died, can be forgiven and find redemption.
In the months following her release from the hospital, she’s become an opioid addict. Not only was she engaged to Nathan (Chinaza Uche), a kind and loving man, she was on her way to try on wedding dresses with his sister and brother-in-law when the accident took place. The complications quickly pile up.
Pugh appears in nearly every scene. Braff films her in dozens of closeups. The camera peers in on an actress crying, yelling, sleeping, getting sober, relapsing, arguing, sleeping, stumbling, singing and complaining. Pugh works overtime to sell all of Allison’s troubled reactions, but that’s what the camera shows—an actress creating an artificial construct. It’s not a bad performance; it’s just that every moment is overdetermined.
The director gives his protagonist plenty of room to emote—too much room—but as soon as Allison wakes up in her hospital bed, bandaged and woozy, the crime and punishment plot that follows holds no surprises for her or any of the supporting characters. Allison will go on a Susan Hayward-like I Want to Live! roller coaster ride of exhausting ups and downs to determine if she is, essentially, a good person.
Braff, like the good son of Hollywood that he is, structures his script around the power of coincidence. To impress the audience with his significant and substantial wisdom, A Good Person embraces the approach of multi-starred films like Crash and Traffic where everyone is in some way connected.
Those giant hands of God fussing about with the model town and train set belong to Daniel (Morgan Freeman). He turns out to be Nathan’s estranged father. Even though Allison is responsible for his daughter’s death, Daniel pleads with her to stay at the AA meeting she arrives at by chance.
Daniel’s a retired police officer who’s been sober for 10 years. His steadiness is meant to offset Allison’s petulance. He’s a reluctant mentor with a troubling past of his own. When he was drunk, Daniel used to beat Nathan, which accounts for their estrangement. So it’s not only Allison who deserves the audience’s moral judgment.
Can one find a reformed alcoholic, a man who beat up his son, to be a good person now that he’s trying to make up for his mistakes? Freeman finds a way to balance out Daniel’s sympathetic and unsympathetic characteristics because he’s able to suggest the range of his lived life. A Good Person might have deepened if Allison and Daniel’s roles were reversed, had the central drama been about Daniel and Nathan’s rapport, with Allison recovering—or not—in the background.
The limitations of Braff’s script reduce Allison to a badly behaved character. On pills, she’s a liar, a thief and vampiric, wholly unable to see her reflection in the mirror. Were these unsavory aspects of her personality merely lying dormant before the accident? Pre-addiction, the audience only meets her briefly at her and Nathan’s engagement party. It’s never made clear why Braff would choose to punish this particular couple and her extended family.
Allison’s hubris is restricted to the pleasure she takes in loving Nathan, in being loved by him and looking forward to her marriage. She is blessed with youth, intelligence and artistic talents—a random and seemingly undeserving target at the center of all this suffering.
In his specific choice to make Allison an opioid addict, Braff brings America’s opioid crisis into the film. For some viewers who’ve been personally affected by opioids, A Good Person might be a welcome update and addition to the canon of addiction and recovery films. But when compared to movies like Half Nelson and Shame, Braff’s truisms feel better suited for a middle or high school screening than for anyone smashing little blue pills and snorting them to get high.
It also sacrifices the pep and mordant wit of Postcards from the Edge, another addiction film, and ends up being ponderous. Garden State, Braff’s 2004 directorial debut, captured something of the zeitgeist at the time of its release. It was a unique and personal take on a Bildungsroman, and also set in Braff’s native New Jersey. Back then when he was 29 years old, it made sense that a young filmmaker would have something to say about going home for his mother’s funeral, revisiting his old haunts and taking part in some intense navel-gazing.
During a recent BBC interview, Pugh announced that she’s working on an album. In A Good Person, Braff bookends the film with “Allison” singing. By assembling it this way, the arc of the story doesn’t actually belong to Allison. It belongs to the movie star Florence Pugh, who’s about to launch her recording career. A Good Person looks like it could have been made by any working director in Hollywood. It’s closed-in by precision and a cold professionalism, but does succeed as a vanity project.
‘A Good Person’ opens Friday, March 24.