Garden State (2004)

Review

Garden State

Even before he finds out his mother has died, Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) is depressed – that much we can tell. His medicine cabinet is stocked with seemingly infinite amounts of antidepressants, which seem to mute his depression without addressing it. Although we are told he is an actor who has just finished a high-profile TV part (playing, as several characters recognize, ‘the retarded quarterback’), it’s hard to picture him coming alive in his work; he barely says a word.

Garden State, an auspicious writing and directing debut from Braff (of TV’s charming Scrubs), is about Largeman’s return to his New Jersey hometown, and like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, it’s more about mood and moments than telling a single story (and like that film, it’s about an actor feeling numb to the ‘real’ world). Indeed, the plot feels very much out of short fiction – and, we can’t help but notice, possible autobiography; Braff is a young actor from Jersey, too.

After his mother’s funeral, Largeman reconnects with some old high school friends, sort of; he avoids his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm); and he finds solace in Sam (Natalie Portman), a pathological liar and new friend. The film begins as almost a series of deadpan vignettes – and Braff, who can get through entire scenes without hardly moving at all, certainly gives good deadpan. There is a danger here, in asking us to watch the reaction shots of a character who barely reacts at all. But as quiet and still as Braff can be, he’s also blessed with an inherent likeability – it’s no surprise that he works so well as a sitcom lead. As a director, he surrounds himself with movement and pretty pop songs.

His film is by turns over- and under-written – his characters occasionally pause to articulate points better left unsaid (‘I’ve been on a journey these past few days’), while Largeman’s relationship with both parents, dead and alive, evolves from hazily troubled to just plain hazy. Despite some nice actorly gestures on Ian Holm’s part, the parent-child material is oddly placed off-screen, except when it’s overexplained in dialogue. The supporting characters from Largeman’s past are interchangeable, with the exception of gravedigging stoner Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) who emerges from the pack late in the film. Sarsgaard, Braff, and Portman anchor an extended, thankfully literal ‘journey’ that is the emotional centerpiece of the film.

During this sequence and elsewhere, Garden State is delightful; if it seems as if I’ve taken several paragraphs to say as much, it’s because the film’s warmth sneaks up on you. At first, you watch with detached amusement; eventually the characters start to feel like home. This is a sweet and funny movie, especially in its handling of the relationship between Andrew and Sam. Natalie Portman plays the latter as a down-to-earth screwball heroine, winningly embracing her own faults. He’s quiet and she lies, yet the audience feels that they work together. Braff is just as comfortable evoking feelings as he is writing about them, and the former is where his movie really soars.

I confess relief in reporting that Garden State is not shot on digital video, or with a handheld camera, as much as the dreary surroundings might beg for such indie-movie cred-bearers. Braff is intent on making a movie that’s actually worth watching, and he has an eye for memorable images: Andrew and Sam zipping around on an old-timey motorcycle (complete with sidecar), and the characters’ unexpected entrance into a darkened back room of a hotel, where low-level employees spy on guests through peepholes.

Most movies – especially romantic comedies – involving a character’s reassessment of himself can be so tedious: ‘I thought I had everything, but I was wrong!’ the hero will explain to those around him, who will inexplicably refrain from flinging produce in his direction. Garden State depicts self-realization in beautifully modulated baby steps.

The DVD includes a commentary track, a pile of deleted scenes, gag reel, and a making-of featurette. Highly recommended.

Rain: Good for the garden.