Gardener of Eden was the perfect film for Kevin Connolly's (Entourage) directorial debut; not only does it put him on some familiar turf, but it shares a few similar themes with his hit HBO show. Picture Entourage if it was set in New Jersey and revolved around a group of guys who, instead of being hot-shot Hollywood play-makers, were simple blue-collar offspring with drug habits and no career aspirations. (Actually, this was probably Vince and his crew before they hit it big.) For anyone who grew up in the suburbs of New York or New Jersey, these were guys you knew (or still know); their parents were war veterans-turned-city workers who could never afford to show their kids the world outside their small town. Their fathers made an honest living, put food on the table, and all they wanted in return was a little quiet time with an alcoholic beverage of their choice. Meanwhile, their mothers were perpetually pissed off -- at them, at their husbands, at the grocery store clerk. These were kids who didn't give a shit. They didn't have to. Best case scenario: They go to college, graduate and get a cozy job in the city. Worse case scenario: They wind up like their parents; stuck, drunk and bored. But hey, they're still alive, right?
These were kids who didn't need an education because their parents couldn't afford one. So, instead, they worked at delis, diners, gas stations and sold drugs. They played cards, smoked pot, threw parties and had sex. And while most were perfectly happy with this existence, there were a select few who wanted more out of life. They wanted to be noticed. They wanted to make a difference. Enter Adam Harris (Lukas Haas): After he gets kicked out of school for inviting prostitutes to his dorm room, Adam winds up back at home in New Jersey with his parents and a crummy job at an Israeli-owned deli. When he witnesses a deadly car crash involving a friendly elderly customer, something clicks inside -- Adam no longer feels an urge to relive those old high school glory years like his four best friends. He's angry. He's jaded. He wants to know why bad things happen to good people. Thus, he looks for answers with the only tool he owns: his fists.
When his anger reaches the point of no return, Adam literally attacks the first guy to walk by. A guy who, as luck would have it, turns out to be a serial rapist wanted by the cops. And it's during this moment -- the lowest in his life -- that Adam finally acquires a taste of something he's been longing for his whole life: recognition. After all, he's now a hero. But like an unhealthy drug habit, Adam becomes addicted to saving the day. He looks to imaginary superhero's like Superman and asks: Why can't that be me? And just when you think the film is going to turn into this uplifting, wonderful "guy saves the day, and in the process learns the meaning of life," Gardener of Eden goes in an entirely different direction. It gets darker. It gets nasty. It becomes a story about a guy slowly spiraling out of control; to a point where this obsession to be a better man turns him into a person no one wants to be around. A loner. A rebel. A Travis Bickle.
Taxi Driver is one of a handful of grimy 70's flicks that Connolly and screenwriter Adam 'Tex' Davis draw inspiration from. As Adam (the character, not the writer) becomes increasingly more infatuated with his hero status, he begins to lift weights and bulk up; he asks his father (a silent Vietnam war veteran, still trapped in "the bush" after all these years) to teach him how to fight. He's a man on a mission; not unlike Charles Bronson's character in Death Wish or Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. Along the way he befriends a rape victim (Erika Christensen) with ties to both the elderly woman who died before and the rapist that Adam unintentionally apprehends. In her, he finds comfort. He finds a way out. But not even she can save him if he's not interested in saving himself first. Though it's the right script for Connolly, it's a risky project for a first-time director to take on. Unlike Davis' commercial hit comedy Just Friends, Gardener doesn't play by the rules; it doesn't fit into any one category. It genre jumps. It plays with your head. And, with its Taxi Driver vibe, it's not surprising that Leonardo DiCaprio would choose this film as the first to be produced through his Appian Way production company.
If you're searching for faults, you might find them in Adam; he's far from your traditional sympathetic main character. Instead of rooting for him, we feel sorry for the guy. But for anyone that's ever found themselves lost and confused in their mid-twenties, then it might be a bit easier to relate. Bonus points are awarded to the terrific cast, including top-notch performances from Haas and Giovanni Ribisi (who plays one of the slimiest drug dealers you'll ever see on screen). Davis' twisted script proves he's more than just "that funny guy who wrote Just Friends" -- he's a talented writer who knows how to evoke several different emotions from the audience in just one scene. In the post-screening press conference, Connolly noted that he set out to make something different. He wasn't trying to glorify Adam's actions, but at the same time he wanted the audience to feel uncomfortable. Because life in your twenties isn't always a piece of cake, especially for a group of guys who never had any goals. Gardener of Eden isn't for everyone, but if you're looking for something original -- something funny, dark and painful -- then this is a film I highly recommend.