DVD Review: “Garden Party”

Written by DVD Reviews

Garden Party (Lionsgate, 2008)
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Garden Party, just released on DVD after a brief theatrical run, is one of those indie films that kind of meanders through various scenes that don’t really go anywhere. The limited plot features a group of individuals living in Hollywood, trying to make sense of their lives and connect with other human beings on some level. If it sounds like you’ve heard this plot a thousand times before, you have. Only, it was done 100 times better in films like Grand Canyon and Crash. All of the characters bump into one another at various points throughout the film, as if these moments had some import to the overall plot, but they don’t. Instead, these chance encounters feel like devices to make us think how clever writer/director Jason Freeland is. Unfortunately, it comes off as contrived.

The central storyline involves Sally (Vinessa Shaw), a real estate agent who happens upon Todd (Richard Gunn), an artist who is supposedly a sex addict. The only indication we have that he’s some sort of an addict is that he looks at a lot of online porn. Of course, the only reason I’m calling him a sex addict is because the DVD box markets his character as that. It also markets a good-natured Nebraska boy (played by Alexander Candese) as the “dancer,” even though his character never indicates that he wants to dance, and he only actually dances in one scene in the film (one of the most ridiculously staged moments in a movie I have seen in a long time). Sally once posed for some nude pictures and those pictures have shown up on the Internet. When a chance encounter brings Sally and Todd together, he immediately recognizes her because he’s been infatuated with her for years (of course). She tries to get him to sell his house, he reveals he’s seen her naked, she promises sex acts in return for him tracking down the pictures and, man, you get where this is going.

Meanwhile, a group of twentysomethings wanders from scene to scene, hoping the film will end sometime soon so that they can get on with their careers. They include the aforementioned Candese as Nathan, who works for Sally and house sits her stash of dope, Willa Holland as April, a teenager on her own after leaving her home and a lecherous stepfather, and Erik Smith as Sammy, a talented singer pursuing the American dream by trying to become a pop star.

The production value is low-budget and the script is stretched to fill the required number of minutes to make it a feature film (88, in this case). In fact, the script doesn’t even provide enough material, so we’re stuck with long shots of cars driving, wine being poured, or people mingling at a party with no real purpose. It certainly seems that there wasn’t enough footage available to give Freeland any leeway to edit around the weaker performances in the film and tighten the lagging scenes. Either there were scenes shot that didn’t turn out, or Freeland didn’t think the whole thing through before going to into production. Whatever the case, you come away from Garden Party feeling like you’ve missed half of the story.

It’s not like there isn’t a good idea at play here. This is the type of material great independent filmmakers tend to excel at. And there are some very talented actors doing their best to make the film work. However, no matter how beguiling Holland is or how naive and good-natured Candese is, Freeland leaves the actors directionless, fending for themselves. The film ends with a Hollywood ending for every character — but I wish there had been one for the viewer, in which a better film was offered.

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