Like the mentally-stunted protagonist of Garden State, we have Peter, Humboldt County's med school flunkie. Jeremy Strong's performance as Peter gives Zach Braff's in Garden State a run for its money for its sheer criminal blandness. Strong plays Peter as a cipher, wavering between the emotional blankness of a borderline catatonic and the comic dithering of a nebbish. Peter's identity has been neutered by a domineering father (Peter Bogdanovich), a UCLA medical professor who one day tells his underperforming son, who's also his student, that he's going to flunk him.
In the ensuing downward spiral, Peter hops into bed and then into a car with the coquettish and freewheeling Bogart (Fairuza Balk) as she heads home to the title county, California's so-called "lost coast," a northern enclave of pot farmers and post-hippie dropouts living among the redwood forests. Here, Peter finds himself the outsider amidst Bogart's ragtag clan. The leader of the pack is Jack (Brad Dourif), an erstwhile physics professor now ensconced in his woodsy homestead, subsisting on the earnings from growing and selling marijuana, and supposedly perfecting his kooky scientific theories. Jack's partners in exile include Rosie (Frances Conroy), a holdover of the flower-power days and the widow of Jack's closest friend; Rosie's son, Max (Chris Messina), a bit lost himself since the death of his father and planning to yield huge profits from his own secret pot-growing operation, so he can get his daughter, Charity (Madison Davenport), out of the boonies.
Freaked out by all the pot and antsy to get home, Peter resists getting into the groove of counterculture life, but, before long, differences fade away in the clouds of pot-smoke and a few companionable pisses to help the soil along. What sustains this predictable stretch of the film is a combination of Brad Dourif's warm, grizzled performance, production designer Freddy Naff's lived-in interiors, and cinematographer Ernest Holzman's visuals, which get the most out of the gorgeous, light-dappled forest and seaside settings. Max's marijuana capitalism and Peter's cultural initiation roll together in Jacobs and Grodsky's script, which builds towards a confrontation finale involving the Feds. Thankfully, Peter is on hand to keep Max from unhinging, and, when further tragedies strike, he's there to prop up Jack and Rosie too in scenes that have the forced lyrical touch of similar scenes from this vapid ilk of contemporary American "indie" cinema. A long soliloquy delivered by Rosie about her husband's passing reaches for the truths of Hal Ashby, but it rings false because Humboldt County's characterizations feel contrived rather than organic, thereby reducing such moments to ad hoc novelties.
Bogdanovich's presence adds class and a wry, welcome wit to the whole thing, and it's ironic considering that his character is an urbane professional totally out of sorts in the wilderness yet feels more at ease in his own skin than anyone else around. It's a pleasure to watch Bogdanovich, a well-documented cinema lover, take part in something meant to riff on the cinema of his heyday. In fact, Humboldt County's ending bears a resemblance to that of Five Easy Pieces, and while we appreciate Bogdanovich's funny participation in the scene, and Peter's final gesture as a reference to the earlier film, the whole thing feels wrong and cheeky: A nod to the style of the '70s, but with the heart and substance of Sundance at its blandest.
Frances Conroy's hippie hair earns another paycheck.
Run time: 97 mins
In Theaters: Friday 26th September 2008
Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 60%
Fresh: 12 Rotten: 8
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Danny Jacobs, Darren Grodsky
Producer: Jason Weiss
Screenwriter: Darren Grodsky, Danny Jacobs
Starring: Jeremy Strong as Peter, Fairuza Balk as Bogart, Peter Bogdanovich as Professor Hadley, Brad Dourif as Jack, Frances Conroy as Rosie, Madison Davenport as Charity, Chris Messina as Max, Darren Grodsky as Bob, Darren Grodsky as Earl