Character Change and Psychopharmacology

by F.

Last night, I finally got around to watching Zach Braff’s Garden State. I was really enjoying it up until the last 10 or 15 minutes, where it just turned to mush.

The character arc of the protagonist (Andrew Largeman) is so pronounced as to cause the needle on my implausibility meter to go into the red zone.

But if the change in Largeman strains credulity, I suppose the explanation is that he has stopped taking his medication. Specifically, lithium, and perhaps a cocktail of other, more ordinary meds—Prozac, being one.

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I can think of two other relatively popular recent stories in which character change in effected by psychopharmacology. One is Thumbsucker, adapted form Walter Kirn’s novel, and the other is Indecision, the novel by Ben Kunkel. And this started me wondering if this Is this the new deus ex machina. Or maybe it is just the current avatar. Where before we needed God or gods, or at least wine, now we have Zoloft, Ritalin, Prozac, or whatever.

Not that such drugs don’t bring about massive changes in a person. They do, and I know this from first-hand experience. Prozac completely and irrevocably changed my life—for the better. So much so, in fact, that I wouldn’t want to go back to how it was “B.P.”—before Pozac. I would, I think, rather be dead.

I began wondering, after watching Garden State, whether such devices may become more common in storytelling, because, while we want to see character change in a story, we know that such change is rare if not impossible in real life. And the more sophisticated we become scientifically, the worse this dramatic problem gets. It’s that whole will-versus-fate problem in drama, the one that has been around for just a little while—2,500 years at least.

Epiphanies happen, but usually there is backsliding, or there are serial epiphanies. Change is hard. That’s why it makes for good drama. But it has to be properly set up.

What’s funny is that Garden State is overloaded with explanations for the protagonist’s amazing change, which happens in a mere four days. His mother dies, he sort of mends his relationship with his father (in a scene that goes from 0 to emotional closure in less that 60 seconds), and he falls in love.

It’s like going to the salad bar: choose your explanation for why Largeman goes from being emotionally dead to alive and kicking. You can have Baco’s and croutons, in case you can’t choose between them.

For me, this muted the picture’s ring of truth, which, in other respects, is perfect. There is a lot of good stuff in the picture, especially Sam, played by Natalie Portman. Tons of great sight gags. Great compositions. I loved the tone of it generally. I wanted to believe.

But that psychopharmacological deus ex machina hollowed out the emotional core of the movie and left me feeling like I’d just watched a Spielberg meringue rather than something more meaty.

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