Gardener of Eden is about a seemingly irredeemable loser who, through an act of brutal violence, turns out to have some worth and character after all. The film itself undergoes a similar transformation. What initially plays like a flippant sitcom pilot stealthily segues into a meditation on comic book concepts of vigilantism, justice and obsolete macho codes. Yeah, we’ve seen this one a thousand times, but screenwriter Adam ’Tex’ Davis and first-time director Kevin Connolly (a co-star of HBO’s Entourage) have an ingeniously roundabout way of telling the same ol’ tale.
Gardener of Eden—a pretty awful title for such a crackerjack flick—follows aimless NYU dropout Adam Harris (Lukas Haas) on his return to his parents’ house in the Jersey suburbs, and his subsequent downward spiral into Travis Bickle-like street avenger. It’s a long way down, since, unlike the protagonist of Taxi Driver, Adam is surrounded by friends, family and suburban splendor. Besides, as Adam’s voiceover narration points out, he’s from a softer, sillier generation. His WWII vet grandfather’s guts-and-glory reminiscences and his ’nam vet father’s stone-cold silence only make him painfully insecure. He wants his own war, and he finds one after inadvertently catching the local serial rapist in the street one night. Now a local news hero, Adam feels it’s his duty to clean up the town. His new crusade puts him at odds with Vic (Giovanni Ribisi), the local drug dealer whose clientele includes most of Adam’s friends.
At first it seems as if the filmmakers are determined to pile on every last grotesque, obvious joke about Tri-state area slobs and slackers. At one point, I was expecting Steve Buscemi to drift by, sipping a can of 60-cent beer. It’s hard to tell whether, had Connolly reined in some of these one-note gags (a Kevin Smith-ish visual riff imagining the George Reeves era Superman as a vulgar regular Joe is cute, but it’s pure sketch comedy), Gardener of Eden might have had even more punch. As it is, the film’s first act is such a light dark comedy that the truly dark second and third acts descend like a heavy night fog. Clever.
When Adam starts to go batty, Gardener of Eden has grisly fun with American vigilante mythos while paying deliriously strange, loving homage to Taxi Driver. So many scenes are echoes of moments in the Scorsese classic: Adam confesses to one of his buddies that he’s having “bad ideas,” reminiscent of an important conversation in Taxi Driver between Travis (Robert De Niro) and the Wizard (Peter Boyle); Haas’ and Ribisi’s testy interactions recall Travis’ meetings with the pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel); Adam’s run-ins with patronizing local cops resonate with Travis’s Secret Service tête à têtes; he goes on a date somehow even more humiliating than Travis’s trip to the XXX theater with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd); and during Adam’s vigilante training he packs muscle on his skinny, flabby frame the Bickle way, with calisthenics and makeshift free weights.
The film does a lot more than tip its hat to Taxi Driver, though. Davis’ screenplay is full of a comic surliness and evil all its own. There may be another film out there in which the protagonist mulls over the meaning of a scrap of brain he scraped off a car shortly after it mowed down a sweet old lady, but how many of them make it funny? Connolly shows as sure a hand with scenes of tension between Adam and his complacent community as he does with the broader comic moments.
Gardener of Eden is deliciously well cast, with Lukas Haas (the little Amish boy from Witness) an inspired choice to play Adam. A swarthy, scraggly beanpole with bulging brown chihuahua eyes and protruding ears, Haas is hard to look away from. He brings out Adam’s boyish tenderness as well as his volatile side. And not since Adrien Brody’s nose has there been such a fascinating un-classic set of features on a (potential) movie star. Another inspired choice is the great character actor David Patrick Kelly (The Warriors, 48 Hours) as Adam’s ’nam burnout dad. Just sitting on his porch in espresso-colored aviator shades, Kelly radiates serene madness. Likewise, Ribisi makes a great wigger drug dealer, obviously having a lot of fun with the role (and with the frame: In one indelible bit of direction and performance, Ribisi ambles crookedly toward Adam and into the foreground to deliver a demoralizing bit of news. He’s like a sidewinder, this guy.) Erika Christensen does a couple of interesting things in the uninteresting role of the rape victim who Adam falls in love with.
Gardener of Eden could easily be the start of a series of ambitious vigilante exploitation flicks featuring Adam and dad as a kind of two-man A-Team. Sounds like a tiring proposition, but, with Connolly, Davis, Haas and Kelly on board it would sure as hell beat Grindhouse II.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.