Garden State

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."

Laura's Review: B

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.

Robin's Review: B