Zach Braff’s Garden State is the kind of small treasure that drops in theaters once or twice a year. It’s a small film with a big message, and because of that it will have you thinking about it for days after you see it. It’s a film about relationships and what it would be like to return home after a number of years.
Many are familiar with Braff, who stars in TV’s Scrubs. He has a huge talent for writing and acting deadpan humor. Brief research yields the fact that Braff’s passion has always been to work behind the camera, which led to his writing and directing Garden State.
In the film, Braff plays Andrew Largeman, or “Large” to his friends. He is working across the country in a Vietnamese restaurant, and has all but alienated his family back in Jersey. Ever since he was a young man he has been under the influence of various emotional stabilizers because of an incident that left his mom a paraplegic, and he feels partially responsible. He is trying to be an actor, and did a score a role in a made-for-TV movie playing a retarded football quarterback. This fact alone haunts him for the entire film.
One day he receives a phone call from his father informing him of his mother’s passing. Large does the right thing and hops on a plane to the Garden State, leaving his meds behind.
Upon returning home, he begins to see and meet his friends from back in the day. His friend Mark (Sarsgaard) buries coffins in the local cemetery. Another friend is now a cop who pulls him over. Another has developed a product called “silent Velcro,” which has made him an instant millionaire. Another is dating his friend’s mom, who freely does drugs with all of them. It’s a messed up situation to say the least.
During a doctor’s visit for brief, intense headaches, Large meets Sam (Porter) in the waiting room. She is a talkative girl who loves her music, and Large is strangely attracted to her. During his brief stay in Jersey, the two begin to fall in love. Ultimately, it is Large’s friends who will show him what life is all about.
I hesitate to discuss plot points further as this is a film in which you discover things right along with the characters. You’re never quite sure which direction this movie is going in, which is not only refreshing, but a wise move by Braff. I cannot help but think that a large part of this story is autobiographical, with Braff’s signature quirks thrown in for good measure. He seems very passionate about this material.
The acting all around is terrific, with Natalie Portman stealing much of the show as Sam. She is a bit of a head case, but the perfect counter to Large’s blase delivery. Portman is an enormously gifted actress, and she inhabits the character of Sam perfectly. Sarsgaard is also excellent as Mark, who really doesn’t have all that much going for him, but he makes the best of it. Ian Holm adds some veteran acting as Large’s depressed dad, who truly believes that his son is trying to avoid him.
Garden State is the kind of film that you will see once and have to think about for awhile before a repeat viewing. There is a lot to this story, but it’s also filled with offbeat moments and entertaining characters. This is a way-above average rookie film for Braff, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next. In the meantime, check out Garden State if you’re in the mood for a film that is hilarious, touching, and doesn’t insult your intelligence.
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Length: 109 Minutes
Rating: R for language, drug use and a scene of sexuality.
Theatrical Release: July 28, 2004 (Limited) & August 20, 2004 (Wide)
Directed by: Zach Braff
Written by: Zach Braff
Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Ron Leibman, Method Man