Garden State moved me in ways I didn’t expect. This is the first film written by, directed by, and starring Zach Braff. All I knew of Braff before this film was his work on “Scrubs,” which I think is one of the dumbest, most unfunny programs in recent television history (through no fault of his own). It came as a surprise, then, that Garden State is such a mature, emotional piece of work. This is the kind of picture I cherish – one that captures certain aspects of life with such accuracy that it just makes you smile. Braff should promptly quit his TV show and devote himself to making movies full-time.
Braff plays Andrew Largeman (or “Large” as his friends call him), an out-of-work actor struggling to make ends meet by working as a waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant. One morning, he receives a call from his father (Ian Holm) who delivers some bad news with a shocking lack of emotion: Large’s mother is dead, having accidentally drowned in the bathtub. Large returns home to New Jersey for the funeral. He hasn’t been back to visit for nine years. Slowly, we start to learn a few key things about him. For starters, he’s been heavily medicated with anti-depressants and psychotropics for years. Then we learn that his father is also the psychiatrist who has prescribed all these drugs to help mask a family tragedy. To say that father and son have some underlying issues would be an understatement.
Large decides to forgo taking his meds during the few days he’s back in Jersey, and the difference amazes him. For the first time in a long time, he actually starts to feel things again. He reconnects with a few old pals, including one who made a fortune after inventing “silent Velcro.” Another old pal is Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who works at the cemetery digging graves. Their lives of his two friends are quite different, yet both seem to have a contentment that Large has never really had. He wonders how they do it. Large also meets an eccentric young woman named Sam (Natalie Portman). She is a walking contradiction: open but evasive, flighty yet somehow stable. Sam has her share of problems too, which helps her connect strongly with Large. Over the course of a few days, the character takes a good, hard look at the world around him and realizes that he wants to be part of it again for better or for worse.
In describing the theme of Garden State, I realize that it may come off sounding somewhat New Agey, but I promise you that the film is anything but. The beauty of it is that Braff combines sly humor with emotional truth to come up with something that rings very true. There are no easy platitudes about healing the “inner child.” Instead, we get a very intimate portrait of a young man who’s been taught to hide from his problems all his life, to make them go away with the popping of a pill. Once he stops hiding, he discovers that facing those problems isn’t as bad as he thought it would be; he is stronger than he knew.
There is a flawless scene near the end, in which Large confronts his father about the years of medication-induced numbness he has endured. Braff and Holm bring so much depth to the scene that it is almost miraculous to behold. There’s none of the melodramatic confrontation that so many films would be reduced to; instead, we get a father/son moment that feels genuine and authentic. I’m in awe of the pure beauty the scene contains.
Garden State has some serious moments in it, but it’s still essentially a comedy. The humor comes from the fact that we see the world through Large’s eyes. Some people might have a problem with the absurdities and strange little asides that are in nearly every scene, but I think they’re absolutely necessary. Because he is coming out of the chemical fog, reality seems heightened and exaggerated to him. It’s like looking at the world through a fun house mirror. It also serves to illustrate how alive Large feels. When he sees the elaborate maze of hamster tubes that cover an entire wall of Sam’s house, Large doesn’t find it off-putting because Sam’s eccentricities are new and exciting to him. “You’re thinking of running for your life,” she observes after a tour of her home. “If I didn’t want to be here,” he replies, “I’d go.”
The relationship between Large and Sam is the heart of the movie. She is fragile in ways that compliment him. Sam’s way of dealing with life’s problems is just to keep on living. (Everyone in the cast is outstanding, but Natalie Portman could find herself a serious Oscar contender if the studio pushes for her.) Through knowing her, Large is inspired to allow himself to experience real emotions, including pain. He’s just so glad to finally feel something that it becomes liberating. The chemical haze starts to lift and he realizes that he can begin to heal the parts of himself that were wounded long ago.
Garden State is so rich with character details and human moments that I would have to write a review ten times as long as this one in order to include everything that impacted me. My hope, though, is that you will see and experience the film for yourself. Most movies end with the main character solving all his/her problems and living happily ever after. When the screen fades to black, we know that Large still has a long road ahead of him, but for the first time ever, he’s able to see exactly where that road is leading, and he travels down it with eyes wide open.
( out of four)
Garden State is rated R for language, drug use and a scene of sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.
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