“A Good Person” is the latest film from writer-director Zach Braff. As an actor, Braff endeared himself to TV fans as the star of the medical dramedy “Scrubs.” As a director, he became the bane of existence for many courtesy of his 2004 debut, “Garden State.” Outside of “Love, Actually,” I can’t think of another movie whose mere mention inspires a more viscerally negative reaction than “Garden State.”
I was indifferent toward Braff’s debut. I did, however, enjoy his 2017 remake of “Going in Style,” which featured Alan Arkin, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman as three senior citizens who plan on robbing a bank. My only complaint was that Braff’s version was far lighter than the 1979 original; I wanted more of that film’s darker edge.
I should be careful what I wish for, because “A Good Person” highlights the director’s inability to deal with heavier material. He punctuates this film’s depressing subject matter with hit-or-miss moments of humor and comedy. A cruel twist of fate upends the life of Allison (Florence Pugh), sending her into a spiral of destructive behavior. Addiction, guilt, and sudden death do not gel with Braff’s penchant for twee needle drops and almost rabid insistence that you love his characters even at their worst.
Braff’s script has a lot to cover and much to say, yet these 129 minutes feel long and ill-used, especially considering the superficial handling of its topics. The final third of the film is one unnecessary (and often incredible, not in a good way) scene of trauma after another, culminating with an ending that feels callous and unearned.
“A Good Person” reunites Braff with Freeman, who, of course, has to be heard in voice-over. The lazy use of this actor’s golden voice is a crutch no director can seem to resist. When you discover the reason why he’s narrating, you’re liable to pull out your hair. There’s also a sprawling model train set that has enough heavy-handed symbolism to choke an English teacher.
Freeman plays Daniel, a Newark, N.J., ex-cop and recovering alcoholic whose drunken rages caused permanent physical and emotional damage to his son, Nathan (Chinaza Uche). Nathan is about to marry Allison, a singer-songwriter and, perhaps, the character alluded to in the title. We see how picture-perfect their relationship is, which can only mean disaster is looming.
That disaster occurs when Allison gets into a car accident while looking at the GPS app on her phone. She is horribly injured, but her passengers, Nathan’s sister and brother-in-law, are killed. Their daughter, Ryan (Celeste O’Connor), is left in Daniel’s care. Nathan remains estranged from his father, though his relationship with his niece is a solid one.
Fast-forward a year and Allison’s life is in shambles. Even though Nathan has forgiven her for the accident, Allison has dumped him. She’s still in love, but her survivor’s guilt overwhelms her. Daniel hates Allison with the heat of a thousand suns, a fact that may have also contributed to her calling off the wedding. Adding to her troubles, Allison is addicted to the Oxycontin she received during her recovery, an affliction she cannot afford to get treatment for due to her lack of insurance.
When she runs out of prescriptions, and her mother, Diane (Molly Shannon), dumps her hidden stash into the commode, Allison tries numerous attempts to get a fix. After an ugly altercation with some former classmates while looking for a score, she voluntarily stumbles into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that, coincidentally, is the same one Daniel attends. Rather than chase her away, he reaches out in support, one addict to another.
A tenuous friendship begins to develop. Allison advises Daniel on how to handle Ryan’s rebellious adolescent streak, which consists primarily of Ryan attempting to have sex with predatory men old enough to be arrested for statutory rape. The film really starts to strain credibility when depicting Allison’s interactions with Ryan. Braff forces scenarios that simply do not feel real.
If nothing else, Braff gets good to great performances out of his cast. The standouts are Pugh and Freeman: She’s a violent slash of petulance, while he remains a master of barely concealed wrath. Both actors are willing to plumb the depths of desperation, but their hard work is wasted in a film unworthy of their talents. “A Good Person” is a mediocre movie.
A GOOD PERSON
Written and directed by Zach Braff. Starring Morgan Freeman, Florence Pugh, Molly Shannon, Celeste O’Connor, Chinaza Uche. At Landmark Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and suburbs. 129 minutes. R (drug use, profanity, violence)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.