Movie Review
Garden State
Director: Zach Braff
Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard

almost everyone appears to be on one psychiatric medication or another these days. Turn on your television and you’re hard-pressed to get through a single program without being confronted with a million brightly-lit, gauzy spots advertising Wellbutrin, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Elavil, whatever. A husband pushes his wife on a swing, smiling. A woman runs through a meadow trailing a balloon bouquet, smiling. An amorphous cartoon blob, frowning at a ladybug, though we are assured he once took enormous pleasure in the time-honored art of ladybugging, pops a pill and suddenly finds his joy in ladybugs miraculously restored and bounces after one, smiling.

With all of these men, women and amorphous cartoon blobs smiling, it’s enough to make any one of the remaining 30 or so people in the world who aren’t medicated feel like we’re missing something. After all, I hate my dead end job. I spend demoralizing hours every day looking for a new one that I will also inevitably grow to hate. I often find myself in a cold sweat over financial concerns. I can’t seem to get to or from the Laundromat or the supermarket without freaking out a little because the sidewalks in this city are jammed with slow walkers who don’t give an inch and panhandlers who take a mile. There don’t seem to be enough hours in every day to get everything I need to done so that I can enjoy some simple pleasure for five minutes before I have go to bed, wake up and do it all over again, more tired than I was the day before. And, damn it, on my worst days, I feel like a cartoon blob that can’t appreciate ladybugs anymore, too.

But I recognize that there are a lot of people out there who feel the same way. This is the human condition. This is reality. And while the idea of a pill to blunt reality sounds appealing sometimes, a prescription isn’t the answer for everyone. I’d rather feel every burning second of the desire to throw elbows in an overcrowded movie theater as acutely as the joy I find in that first Friday cocktail with friends at the local dive. It seems a fair trade. I’ll take the ups and downs of life over comfortably numb any day.

Return of the Magic Eye

And numb is a pretty apt description of how we find Andrew “Large” Largeman (Zach Braff) at the beginning of Garden State. Living anything but large in L.A. as a marginally successful TV actor, Large spends his days in a lithium-induced stupor waiting tables at a Vietnamese theme restaurant and not getting any new acting gigs. When a ritually screened call comes in from his estranged psychologist father (Ian Holm) informing him that Large’s mother has died, Large leaves his pharmacopia in Los Angeles and returns home to New Jersey to confront family skeletons, less successful townie friends, and his previously unfelt emotions, all without a chemical net.

At his mother’s funeral, which is unexpectedly hilarious, Large hooks up with two of those townie friends, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and Dave (Alex Burns) who are working there as gravediggers. The two welcome Large back into the fold more warmly than his icy father does, and seem to serve as a more true family than the family he has come home to. When brief, intense headaches begin plaguing Large, no doubt some kind of lithium fallout, which he has been on since the age of ten, he visits a neurologist. There he meets cute, quirky, compulsive-liar Sam (Natalie Portman) in the waiting room, who introduces him to the music of the Shins and the trick to getting a dog to stop humping your leg.

As their friendship grows, it becomes clear that she’s introducing Large to a lot more¾ mainly, his rich but until now, untapped emotional life. While Large confronted the reality of his mother’s death with a poker face and the inability to feel sad about it, the very admission that he was home to attend his mother’s funeral was enough to make the exquisitely sensitive Samantha cry. But is Large prepared to face so much emotion at once after his long, lithium-laced coma, even with such an adorable little screwball as his guide? Looks like you’ll have to see Garden State for yourself to find out.

I mean really, see this movie! Garden State is probably the most impressive writer/director debut to fall from the celluloid heavens since Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. Anyone who knows me knows what a huge compliment that is, and it’s certainly not something I expected find myself saying less than ten years after the release of Donnie Darko. It’s near to Darko in that it has a killer soundtrack, a wicked sense of humor, moments of sublime stillness and depth, and an absolutely stellar cast. It also has a similar ending in that it invites debate, discussion and a million speculated revisions. Unlike Darko, however, it has the writer/director playing the lead, and while Braff does a phenomenal job at that too, he has his work cut out for him, constantly wrestling the scenes back from Portman and Sarsgaard.

Andrew smiles as he realizes he's snagged the one girl in New Jersey who does not own a Bon Jovi jean jacket...

Honestly, I don’t know which of the two I loved more. Sarsgaard’s lovable loser and Portman’s sweet, unfiltered loon are both unforgettable and completely real. You have no trouble believing that some versions of these characters exist in the world, and maybe they remind you of people you know. Okay, so maybe I can pick a favorite, but that’s only because I loved Peter Sarsgaard in another film, The Salton Sea, so damn much. He has a gift. He makes being a fuck-up look absolutely essential. He reminds us that the only people we can truly rely on in our darkest moments are the most seemingly unreliable. It takes real skill to make aiming low look so righteous, and for that I salute him.

If there are any flaws to be found in Garden State, it is only that it suffers from its own earnestness. Once or twice I found some of the dialogue and symbolism a bit unsubtle, and at times it feels like a collection of great scenes and words strung together without much thought to the sturdiness of the finished product. It’s almost as if Braff didn’t believe he’d ever make another movie after this, and tried to cram every great idea he ever had into one film in case he didn’t. Well, I certainly hope he saved something for later because he’s exactly the kind of guy you want to see make more movies. He’s a little bit Richard Kelly, a little bit Wes Anderson, a little bit Charlie Kaufman and a little bit something I don’t think we’ve seen before.

Garden State, despite its enlarged heart, or maybe because of it, is an outstanding success. There are enough bold, vivid visuals, bittersweet twists, and achingly funny moments to more than excuse Braff’s youthful exuberance. The whole time I was watching it I was thinking of how I couldn’t wait to get it on DVD for a million reasons. So my parents, both of whom are big Scrubs fans, could see it. So I could see all of the deleted and alternate scenes, of which there must be at least a few. So I could hear the commentary track, but most of all so I could hear the dialogue that followed some of those comedic gems. The theater was in such an uproar after each one that you couldn’t hear anything that came immediately after. Considering the subject matter of the film and everything Large has to face up to, Garden State might have ended up dour, depressing and pretentious in the hands of a lesser director, but Braff has an obvious gift for comedy, and Garden State is rich with humor.

In case it’s not painfully obvious by now, Garden State comes highly recommended. It’s a career making debut film for Zach Braff, one that has surely secured him a future in any direction he chooses to go from here. And as far as little indies go, Garden State is impressively…well…large.

By: Jen Cameron
Published on: 2004-08-13
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