Garden State is that rarest of things: a quirky film that actually is quirky, and that isn’t just working overtime in a desperate attempt to seem that way. And I say that despite its climactic wrap-up, which is just too neat and tidy — and which screams of post-test-screening remonkeying.
Sure, the film has moments of trying too hard — like a bit with a seeing-eye dog trying to marry the leg of hero Andrew Largeman (writer/director/actor Zach Braff). Yet such strained elements are few and far between, and are more than balanced by Garden State‘s many off-hand on-target details (the forgotten gas nozzle protruding from the tank of Andrew’s car, for instance; it’s not just quirky, but it also helps to define how completely out of it he actually is).
Braff is best-known for starring in the TV series Scrubs, but he has a history in film dating back to his appearance in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery in 1993 — and it seems obvious that Allen left a mark on him, as did Braff’s subsequent stints in independent films. For his own filmmaking debut, he took the most unpromising and unoriginal of concepts — going back to your hometown after years of absence because of a family tragedy — and turned it into something fresh, funny and relevant to his generation.
Braff belongs to what is sometimes called “Generation Y,” the successor to Generation X. Now, I admit that, as a Baby Boomer, I never quite got the Gen-X business, finding films like Reality Bites unfunny and even unpleasant. This may not be entirely an age thing, however; I feel pretty much the same way about The Graduate — which, I’m told, speaks to my own generation. I’m not going to be so presumptuous as to claim that Garden State speaks to a generation that I’m not even part of; however, I will say that it addresses certain aspects of that age grouping as I know it from the outside.
Braff has cast himself as a young man who’s spent his entire life heavily medicated — lithium, Zoloft, Celexa, you name it — by his psychiatrist father, Gideon Largeman (Ian Holm), for reasons that appear less and less justifiable as the film progresses. A struggling actor (Andrew’s major credit seems to have been playing a mentally challenged character — perhaps too well — in a TV movie), he ekes out a living as a tenuously employed waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant in Los Angeles, stumbling through life in a drug-dulled haze.
When the call comes that his mother has drowned in the bath, Andrew decides to stop taking his medications and heads back to his boyhood home. As the drugs wear off, his sense of reality starts to kick in, and his time back in New Jersey becomes a strange — sometimes comic, sometimes touching — journey into self-realization. This newfound awareness really begins at his mother’s funeral, where Andrew finds high-school buddy Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) working as a gravedigger, and soon expands through further encounters with other old friends, and some new ones.
Everyone — and everything — in Garden State is just a little exaggerated, though not to a degree that quite crosses into caricature, but in telling ways that are left believably unexplained and unexplored. For instance, there’s enough material in Mark’s jealousy over his mother’s armor-suited boyfriend (a knight at a medieval-themed restaurant) to build a whole separate film; here it’s allowed to just be, as shading to the character.
The relationship between Andrew and Mark is beautifully realized, without any needed explanation as to why these two would be friends. Their bond is deftly “explained” in one line, when Mark objects to being ragged about his Desert Storm trading cards: “Don’t make fun of me about my hobbies. I don’t make fun of you for being an asshole.” There’s even an amusing bit for Method Man (yes, Method Man), in which the rapper-turned-actor proves that his relaxed comic timing has mostly just been wasted up till now.
Apart from the aforementioned pat ending, the film’s only stretch is the Natalie Portman character, Sam, whose presence seems a little too convenient. But Portman’s portrayal and Braff’s direction smooth over the fact that hers is the type of character that’s hard to believe would just be on hand anywhere outside of a movie (think of Ellen Pompeo in Moonlight Mile). In fact, it’s given to Portman to sum up the sense of what it’s like to face the world on its own terms: “I know it hurts. But it’s life and it’s real. And it sometimes f**king hurts, but it’s life and it’s pretty much all we got.”
And that is perhaps the central message of Braff’s audacious and beguiling debut film.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke