As any “junkie” can tell you, at a certain point, Oxycontin stopped being Oxycontin, and many Oxy users in the United States turned to heroin. Almost overnight, the stock character of “the addict” in the middle-class American mind transformed from Skid Row ne’er-do-wells and failed rockstars to “somebody I actually know.” This — and the overdoses that came with it — formed what was called the opioid epidemic. It gave the Sackler family (the founders of Purdue Pharma and inventors of Oxycontin) the one thing they didn’t want: attention. And now, years later, the narrative may be most comparable to the AIDS crisis, where bands of survivors speak longingly of lost friends, the villains of the story are known but not held accountable, and, well, it’s also not really over. Though last year gave us Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, there’s still plenty of cultural mythologizing about the opioid epidemic that can be made before a trend is identified, milked, and then tossed aside. And though it may sound like a Madlibs creation, Zach Braff’s indiewood drama about opioid addiction, A Good Person, dutifully arrives this year to mythologize further.
In typical “written and directed by Zach Braff” fashion, A Good Person is a story about small-town drama, dissolving relationships, very serious conversations, and quirks in lieu of humor. It’s serviceable as an actor-heavy project, as the majority of the movie composes two or three characters in alternating medium shots as they scream or cry their way through paragraphs of confessional dialogue. It’s all very capital-A acting, with a serious enough subject to justify the emotions on display here, and that’s the kind of movie Braff can comfortably make. No shots are held for dramatic effect, and no flashy cuts announce themselves. Instead, every formal choice is a utilitarian one in service of the next dialogue. This is not necessarily a bad thing: invisible studio style is far preferable to a parade of mismanaged visual quirks. But, by the fifth yelling match, the pleasures of A Good Person begin to resemble the pleasures of watching a series of audition tapes. Who among us has ever thought, “I would like to watch a series of audition tapes.”
Braff paces the story itself such that at least one big dramatic revelation happens every scene or two, ensuring that 1) the characters have something new to yell about and 2) no plot description can be attempted without venturing into spoiler territory. The film starts before the yelling, as Allison (Florence Pugh) and Nathan (Chinaza Uche) host their engagement party, filled with schmaltzy jokes and ribbing (couples publicly calling each other out for their private “cute” eccentricities) that clearly signal we’re in antediluvian times. Then, after a few more conversations revolving around just how great everything is, Allison crashes her car, killing Nathan’s sister and brother-in-law, who rode with her to look at wedding dresses. Allison is prescribed Oxycontin, a year passes by, and voila: we’re in Braff county, New Jersey. A few vignettes with some locals catch us up with Allison’s failures before we’re treated to a shot of her smoking heroin on the street, which is an experience just unpleasant enough to compel her into Narcotics Anonymous. That’s where the small town curse hexes Allison, as she just happened to pick the chapter Daniel (Morgan Freeman), the father of her ex-fiance, attends. After the death of his daughter, Daniel memorized all the police reports related to the accident, blamed Allison, and now accepts her arrival as a challenge from God, much like his struggles to raise his orphaned hellion of a granddaughter (Celeste O’Connor). By the time that exposition falls into place, the film can finally settle into the acting reel of intense conversations about grief, addiction, and listlessness that drags these characters into a bizarre final act — one that betrays every value held by the first ninety minutes.
Back in 2004, Zach Braff’s Hamlet adaptation, Garden State, helped solidify the ennui-prick archetype as the darling lead of big-budget indie productions. Prince Hamlet served as a good model for the Scrubs actor’s big, serious directorial debut, but where the melancholy Dane speaks with ghosts and fights with swords, the melancholy Jersey boy Large listens to The Shins and decides not to be fashionably sad anymore. Pugh plays A Good Person’s Allison as an updated Large, though her middle-class, addiction-riddled sadness works a bit better than Large’s floundering actor syndrome. Alas, poor Yorick’s skull remains unacknowledged in both as the emotional gravitas mutes all attempts at humor or literally any other register of acting. This is a death knell for an “actors’ film,” with Braff choosing extremity over range for his cast, forcing them all to play one loud note over and over. Though Allison’s mother (Molly Shannon) lends a bit of wonderful levity in her scenes, every other character uses their scars and fears to lash out or enter into confessionals. When veteran actor Freeman suddenly shifts to a completely different character at the end, it’s literally unbelievable.
What is believable is Pugh’s portrait of addiction. Even when she starts taking bigger and bigger leaps toward helping herself, she still might self-medicate for an NA meeting by taking half an Oxy and rationalizing it: “I’m half-fucked-up.” Any setbacks are met with four shots of tequila, and Tequila Allison wants Oxy or, as America found out, the more easily acquirable heroin. Braff clearly cares about addiction; otherwise, he would’ve given her an easier recovery. It’s perhaps the film’s only real strength, and that’s enough to make it a historical curio. It’s certainly not interested in pointing fingers or rhapsodizing about politics — the very fact that a white woman killed two black people is literally never addressed, not even by Freeman’s Daniel at his angriest moments — and that may be for the best. After all, what would a Zach Braff movie about the ins and outs of the Sackler dynasty and 2020s racial relations look like? If God loves us, He will keep us as His happy, ignorant children.
Though Braff’s overly sincere cascades of dialogue fall once too often into the reviled aesthetic category of cringe, A Good Person clearly wants to be helpful. But its Hollywood ending opts for fantasy, as if the movie thought itself too cruel and hungered for the simple, saccharine notes of the first scene. As our prince reminds us: “I must be cruel only to be kind; Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.”
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 12.