Andrew Largeman lives a medicated lifestyle as an LA actor/waiter, but he's about to be shaken out of his drug-induced torpor. A phone call from his physician dad (Ian Holm, "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King") informs him that his invalid mother has drowned in the bathtub and Andrew must fly home to face his demons in the "Garden State."
One wonders just how autobiographical writer/director/star Zach Braff's (TV's "Scrubs") feature debut really is, as the first timer could be accused of making his home town residents just a little too quirky, particularly love interest Sam (Natalie Portman, "Cold Mountain"). The first-timer also drags his denouement out too long, unwilling to let go, but Braff shows a keen visual sense and scores directing scenes both comedic and touchingly human.
Braff's trippy opening scenes, with Andrew unconcernedly adjusting an overhead air nozzle on a plane experiencing alarming turbulence or lying in an all white bed in an all white room, establish the character's disconnection. Once home, Andrew avoids contact with his bedside mannered dad and observes (Braff usually centers Andrew in a scene and lets the strange action revolve around him). At his mother's funeral, he meets old friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard, "Shattered Glass") seated beside the earth mover that has dug the grave. A party invite ensues and Mark zones out as his old schoolmates indulge in juvenile recreations like drinking and playing spin the bottle.
Andrew meets with Dr. Cohen (Ron Leibman, "Auto-Focus"), who advises him that being prescribed by his father, Gideon, is probably not a good idea. Yet it is the occurrence in Cohen's waiting room, the chance meeting of Sam, that may prove the far larger life event.
Braff's screenplay is stuffed with ideas, from Old Testament biblical references to a recurring animal theme that features masturbating dogs and dead hamsters. He creates divergent but believable paths for the people of his past. The kid who likes to bully has become a cop. Mark supplements his income with 'investments' like Desert Storm trading cards and, more disturbingly to Large, stealing jewelry from caskets. The surreal knight whose clanking awakens Large post-party is simply returning from a shift at a medieval-themed restaurant. A terrific estate location is worked into the mix by the oddly believable notion that one of his own struck it rich by inventing soundless Velcro. Literal screaming into the abyss is primal scream therapy and a faulty dishwasher hinge is the stuff of great tragedy.
Braff also does wonderful work directing his terrific ensemble cast. The film's shining moment is a scene which could have been a mere throwaway. Sam's mom (Jayne Houdyshell, "Maid in Manhattan") embarrasses her by insisting Andrew see a tape of an old ice skating performance. Once again Andrew is plunked on the center of a couch, scrunched between mom and Sam's adopted African brother Titembay (Ato Essandoh, "Roger Dodger"). Mother and son exhibit the behavior of those who know something by heart, excitement building in tandem as a double axel approaches. The fact that Sam is skating in a big plush purple alligator costume is strangely moving. The scene ends with a laugh as Titembay's burst of applause 'claps off' the lamp. If the whole film had been this good it would have been a masterpiece.
Natalie Portman gives an amazing, endearingly blue collar performance. Her introduction, riffing over and over on having recognized Large from a role as a mentally retarded character, is pricelessly funny. Portman's so good she overcomes writing that overloads her character with weird behavior. The great Peter Sarsgaard creates another unique persona in Mark, a shifty guy (he makes extra cash by 'returning' items that have never left the store in the first place) who nonetheless is a friend important to Andrew's self-discovery. Sarsgaard is able to be vaguely off-putting and comforting at the same time. In small roles Jean Smart ("Bringing Down the House") as Mark's wacky mom Carol and Jackie Hoffman ("Kissing Jessica Stein") as Large's invasive Aunt Sylvia stand out. Newcomer Amy Ferguson makes an impression as Dana, the girl Large's bottle spin stops at. Ian Holm, however, is sadly wasted as Gideon Large. We never get a sense of his marriage and the father-son relationship, so prominently featured by Braff, doesn't really pay off.
Braff's production is firmly rooted in small town New Jersey, even with its habitrail homes, six foot fireplaces and dump site natural wonders. Music is nicely chosen from Coldplay's 'Beautiful World' to 'they'll change your life' The Shins.
Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) is a moderately successful celebrity, known for his portrayal as a retarded football quarterback on a weekly television series, gets the bad news that his paraplegic mother has died. He hasn’t been home for nearly a decade and has been on anti-depression medication since he was a child, unable to cope with the guilt over the accident that handicapped his mom. Andrew, going home, eschews the drugs that have clouded his brain and he has hopes that he can find himself in “Garden State.”
Frosh writer-director-star Zach Braff has set himself a tall task in wearing multiple hats as he makes the leap from the small screen, as star of “Scrubs,” to filling his multi-hyphenated roles in his tyro feature. He bites off a big piece here but does an admirable job the first time out of the gate. It isn’t a great film but, still, it reps an ambitious, entertaining first effort.
Large, as he is known to the friends he left in the New Jersey for Hollywood 10-years ago, finds that life has gone on in the small town since his departure. His ex old best friend, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), works as a gravedigger at a local cemetery and supplements his income by robbing the coffins of jewelry.
Things really begin to change for Large when he goes to see a doctor because of sudden headaches. He meets a pretty young woman, Sam (Natalie Portman), who is being treated for her own physical problems. They hit it off immediately and are soon riding around town on Andrew’s grandfather’s old motorcycle and sidecar. The free-spirited Sam refuses to ride in the sidecar, preferring to perch on the back of the bike, and establishes her strong-willed, life-loving character. The relationship that develops between these two is platonic as well as romantic and Sam shows herself to be a true friend to Andrew.
As the story progresses and Large comes off the lithium and other drugs that have long dominated his life, the fog begins to clear and the actor (Largeman, not Braff) comes to grips with the demons – sorrow, guilt, grief, loss, etc. – that have dominated his life for many years. Things wrap up a bit too neatly with all the loose ends tied up before the happily-ever-after finale but you can forgive newcomer Braff for his optimistic exuberance.
Actor Braff comes across as sullen, almost morose, when we first meet him staring into his medicine cabinet full of anti-depressants. Braff, the screenwriter, makes his statement about medication to control mood and mind and the need for unclouded thought. A bit simplistically, he rejects the use of psycho-altering drugs without stating that, in some cases, they do do more good than harm. Not for Andrew, though.
The supporting cast is a collection of talented actors that help Braff tell his story. Natalie Portman is near luminous (if a little too too-good-to-be-true) as Sam, a life-loving, epilepsy-challenged, chronically-lying beauty who carries around head protection and helps to bring Large back to life. The always-terrific Peter Sarsgaard, as usual, creates a fully formed, 3D character in Mark, a guy without much in the way of skills but always has a scheme or two going on. Veteran thesp Ron Liebman helps flesh out the background as Andrew’s shrink who encourages the young man’s decision to give up the anti-depressives in favor of just plain living. Ian Holm, as Andrew’s psychologist father, is a rather incidental a character even though you are told he is the main reason for Large’s long time mental anguish.
Techs are straightforward and don’t get in the way of Braff’s story. The fledgling director, with the help of his wonderful and talented cast, does a decent job marshalling his actors.
“Garden State” isn’t a great film but is a solid debut on several levels for its creator. I give it a B..
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