Garden State is the nickname for New Jersey, and is also the name of the directorial debut from Scrubs star Zach Braff. Not only that, but Braff wrote and starred in the movie, so you know where the buck stops if the movie stinks.
Braff plays Andrew Largeman, an out of work actor living in LA who returns to New Jersey for the first time in nine years to attend his mother’s funeral. For most of his life he’s been zonked out on lithium prescribed by his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) but he leaves his drugs behind in attempt to see if there’s anything really up with him.
While back home he hooks up with his high school buddies, who mostly have deadbeat jobs, including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) who digs graves for a living. Along the way he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a cute epileptic, who has a habit of lying to people, and through her begins to regain some of the feelings that had been subdued by the drugs.
It’s a confident and likeable debut from Braff, with engaging performances from the entire cast, especially from Portman, who literally sparkles when she’s on screen. It’s also a very funny, quirky movie, cut from the same cloth as Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge, with much of the humour rooted in real-life observations, filtering out the normal and concentrating on the gently bizarre.
Braff manages to put some distance between JD, his Scrubs character and Large from Garden State. Large begins the movie virtually catatonic, happy to sit back and observe rather than take part in life, and only by the end of the movie is able to be more pro-active in steering his destiny. The movie was originally called Large’s Ark which both described the character’s story arc and also the strange house boat that Large, Sam and Mark end up at. But as most of the action takes place in New Jersey, the title was changed to the easier to remember Garden State.
If the movie has a fault, it’s that Braff seems to be trying too hard and slightly over eggs the film with unnecessary stuff such as a strange visit to a hotel where people watch the guests making out through tiny holes in the wall. The movie also meanders a lot, continually threatening to lose focus, but to Braff’s credit, it never seriously crosses the line.
Braff demonstrates that he has plenty of scriptwriting chops and a director’s eye for detail and coaxing great performances out of actors. It may feel slightly contrived at times, but never forced or pretentious. It’s going to be really interesting to see what Braff has to offer a few movies down the line.
Garden State (2004)
Dir. Zach Braff
Stars: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Armando Riesco, Ron Leibman, Method Man
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance