A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

GARDEN STATE jjjj

2004, R, 109 mins.

Andrew Largeman: Zach Braff / Sam: Natalie Portman / Mark: Peter Sarsgaard / Gideon Largeman: Ian Holm / Dr. Cohen: Ron Leibman / Diego: Method Man

Written and directed by Zach Braff

Garden State Poster

GARDEN STATE represents a major, major triumph for first time director Zach Braff.  It's one of those small, colorful, offbeat, and sensitive films where characters and dialogue are its merits and it contains elements of frank honesty in its revelations.  It's not one of those easily digestible Hollywood entertainments with warmed over characters that seem to have been needlessly churned out of the cliché factory.  The personas of GARDEN STATE resonate with a real depth. 

Braff may be remembered for his TV show SCRUBS (a minor comic gem, if you ask me), but here he serves the dubious task of wearing three hats in GARDEN STATE.  He writes, directs, and stars as its main protagonist Andrew Largeman.  Braff’s efforts here are a revelation, and his film represents a maturity and emotional scope that many films by veteran directors lack.  GARDEN STATE is a film of inner pain, resentment, childhood trauma, deeply vented family problems, and a bittersweet love story.  It’s as emotional complex and honest as any film of 2004 and a witty and bizarre comedy that is laced with really fantastic performances.  Beyond all of that,  GARDEN STATE also manages to deal with the biggest of existentialist dilemmas – why? 

The mid twenty-something Andrew Largemen is hooked on anti-depressants.  The film opens by introducing us to him as a man that almost needs to be forced to wake up and live his life.  In a moment of minimalist, Kubrickian glee, he lays flat and awake in his sparsely furnished bedroom under his white sheets in his white room.  The phone rings and he does not move an inch.  His father (Ian Holm) shows up on the answering machine as Andrew listens and monitors in.  He is the deliverer of truly terrible news – Andrew's  mother has just died by drowning in her bathtub.  Andrew barely manages to emote and instead gets up and goes to his medicine cabinet, where endless rows of prescription drugs lace the shelves.  It soon becomes abundantly clear that Andrew is not our typical leading man. 

As the film progresses with an effortless sense of patience and style, we grow to learn more about this odd young man.  Andrew lives in L.A., works at a posh Vietnamese restaurant (when a customer asks for bread, he deadpans that since it is a Vietnamese cuisine, there is no bread), and is a wanna-be actor.  His only major work to his credit is a small role as a handicapped football player in a TV movie.   Upon hearing of his mother’s death he makes a difficult decision to return to his New Jersey home after being AWOL for over nine years.  He also makes another interesting choice: He decides, for the first time in years, to leave his medication behind and fly home for the funeral.  Without his meds, his life begins to get complicated, maybe for the worse…but maybe for the better. 

It is clear that Andrew does not occupy a very close relationship with his father.  Ian Holm plays his psychiatrist father as a man of pride and resentment towards his son, especially for an event in the past that will not be revealed here by me.  Ian Holm is masterful in how he does not play the father as a man of intense hate and outward anger.  He holds everything back and is quiet and distant in his hostility towards his son.  It is he that has essentially prescribed Andrew to a life of constant medication.  His father also put him in boarding school when he was sixteen, which essentially created the riff in their relationship that is still felt to the present day.  Andrew has difficulty coming to grips with his father, and his first attempts at reconnecting seem futile and redundant to him.  At one point, Andrew chimes in, “You know that point in your life when you realize that the house that you grew up in isn't really your home anymore?”  That sums up their tumultuous relationship perfectly. 

Andrew eventually goes to the funeral, although views it at a distance, away from the people and family he does not wish to see.  It's kind of a darkly funny moment, especially with the choice of song that is sung by one of the relatives as the casket is being lowered.  Andrew does not cry (he has not, he later reveals, cried since he was a kid) and walks away from the proceedings.  He eventually recognizes a few of the local gravediggers as his stoner high school buddies, one of them being the very weird Mark (played very effectively by Peter Sarsgaard).  Of course, if he were not already medicated enough, Andrew goes with him to a party and soon dabbles in ecstasy and plays spin the bottle with girls “he thinks” are “legal”.  The party provides him with some fun, but he soon wakes up with recurring headaches that have been plaguing him for a while.  He decides to see a doctor and while in the waiting room he meets the irrepressibly cute Sam. 

Sam (played by the absolutely luminous and lovable Natalie Portman) is a local girl who waits in the hospital as well, in the film's single greatest realized scene.  She is one of those girls that men only dream of on a daily basis – utterly gorgeous, single, funny, energetic, sassy, and one that actually walks up to you and strikes up a conversation  because, well, she likes you.  Sam is not the sharpest knife in the drawer (she recognizes Andrew as the “retarded football player” from the movie and later asks if he is really retarded), but she engages in a wonderful scene of inquisitive questioning.  She's a real winner, but is a woman that's kind of a mystery (she brags that she is a compulsive liar and does not know why she tells people such heinous things).  Alas, she’s cute, exuberant, and filled with an insane level of joy for life that exists on a polar opposite plane of existence from Andrew’s catatonic mentality.  Sam's a figure of adorable eccentricities, and her vitality, charm, and carefree spirit really wins over Andrew.  She sure talks an awful lot, and sometimes just can’t seem to shut up, but Andrew falls for her anyway, maybe because she represents the light that he needs in his troubled life. 

Andrew’s journey back to his hometown also allows for him to reconnect with his past buddies.  Mark is one of the more offbeat characters in the film, who takes Sam and Andrew on personal journeys of discover that involves fireside chats, drugs, hotels that have peepholes for patrons to use while watching other patrons have sex, and an interesting odyssey to seek out a couple that live in a boat at the bottom of a stone quarry (that scene leads to a very surprising and touching payoff that reveals that Mark just may be something more than a drug-induced social recluse).  Through Mark, Andrew is also re-introduced to other colorful characters of his past, like a former high school classmate who is now a millionaire for inventing, get this, “silent Velcro”. 

It is through his friends, and most especially the charismatic Sam, that Andrew slowly begins to get out of his lethargic state of being in a medicated-induced stupor where life is essentially meaningless.  He not only has to deal with his apprehensive father, but also has to deal with his own inner issues of guilt over his mother, his lack of emotion over her death, and reconnecting with a sense of worthiness in his life he has not felt in years.  Not only that, but he’s falling in love with Sam.  How do you express your love for someone when your emotions have been put on cognitive hold for so long?  

GARDEN STATE is one of those films with no easy answers to the problems that trouble the sensitive Andrew.  It’s a film about passive aimlessness and apathy where its characters are not easily treated.  The journey that Andrew takes is a fine high wire act of spiritual re-awakening.  I love how the film is so patient.  It never feels the need to hastily advance from one plot point to the next and arrive at a denouement that feels anti-climatic.  The film has been criticized for being as aimless as its main character, but these people sort of miss the point altogether.  Trying to re-discover yourself is not, by its very definitions, easy, and it often takes one on paths they least expect.  It’s fitting that the narrative is as disconnected as Andrew.  Emotional healing never occurs in a straight line.  Of course, Sam, Mark, and his friends all push Andrew to smarten up and take charge of his life, but part of the learning process for Andrew is to find his own path.  This, of course, is complicated by his father, who does not ever seem ready, or willing, to let his son go on a non-medicated path.  He seems more interested in his son continuing his empty existence. 

The film has many moments that are small masterpieces of comic timing and odd quirkiness.  One standout moment occurs when Andrew tries on a shirt that was made for him.  Yet another occurs during a strange visit to his millionaire friend’s mansion as he demonstrates a peculiar game he plays with flaming arrows.  A brief scene where Andrew gets a medical checkup reveals the film’s biggest laugh.   The film also has its moments of absolute tenderness, especially in the first meeting of Sam and Andrew.  Braff, as director, lets the characters and dialogue shine, and manages to capture the allure of meeting someone beautiful and exciting with one single camera shot.  You’ll know what I am talking about when you see it.  Braff has a keen eye for balancing simplistic visuals with well-planned camera moves, which often create (and reveal) some of the film’s best moments. 

The performances in the film are solid and fantastic.  Braff is very strong in the lead as a man who is quiet, soft-spoken, and unsure of himself and the world around him.  Sarsgaard (who was terrific in the very underrated SHATTERED GLASS) is equally appealing as Andrew’s druggy friend who reveals hidden depths to his character that grows refreshing by the film’s conclusion.  But it is Natalie Portman as Sam that absolute shines with a luminosity and effervescent cuteness that is undeniable to love.  She is so warm, funny, outspoken, naïve, and beautiful that every time she smiles, you smile with her.  Portman has the most thankless job of the film, as she creates so much out of her character when, realistically, there is not much to define her as a character.  She kind of remains an endearing enigma even at the film’s conclusion, and you never really learn too much about her.  Yet, she is a light-hearted figure who provides the spark that jumpstarts Andrews’s life.  It’s truly a remarkable performance, and she strikes the right notes every time.  It's kind of a shame that much of the recent spotlight that has gone in her direction has been in regards to the STAR WARS prequels.  Those films are visual and visceral films, not actor’s films, and her presence in them has made many, I fear, forget what a truly wonderful actor she is.  Her work in GARDEN STATE is Oscar caliber and a refreshing reminder that she is capable of being the cinema’s most reliable of young actors. 

GARDEN STATE is one of the smarter and more unconventional films I’ve seen this year.  It has its heart in the right place and its sensibilities perfectly aligned to create an enriching human drama that really had an effect on me.  It's one of those great realized stories of young, troubled men that deserves modest comparisons with THE GRADUATE.  Both Benjamin from that classic film and Andrew are essentially unsure of who they are and where they want to be in life, and both have outside agents that are pushing them to succeed.  Yet, GARDEN STATE is more focused on the personality of its main character and less on the world or characters that are around him.  Braff’s first outing here as writer and director creates a fully tailored and introspective journey into the inner puzzlement that we all, at some time or another, deal with in our lives.  There is one moment in the film that's kind of perfect, as Andrew and his father come to a head as Andrew reveals to him that even though things may not be perfect between them...they’ll just have to deal with it as only they can to continue on living.  

That’s what GARDEN STATE is really about, and that's why it is one of the best films of 2004.

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