Garden State

on July 28, 2004 by Annlee Ellingson
Writer/director Zach Braff, perhaps best-known for his starring role on TV''s "Scrubs," hints at a future filmmaking career as his generation's romantic comedy absurdist with a debut that evokes Woody Allen and Hal Ashby. At once exquisitely clever and devastatingly poignant, "Garden State" portrays that uniquely Generation X experience of going through a mid-life crisis 20 years prematurely--"Garden State" is a little bit like "Lost in Translation" in that regard--with a visual flair that echoes the nonsensicality of finding oneself in such a situation.

After nine years struggling towards a moderate success as an actor in Hollywood, Andrew "Large" Largeman (Braff) returns to his hometown in New Jersey to attend his mother's funeral. Notably, he leaves his pharmacy of powerful antidepressants behind in the medicine cabinet. The act is the first step in a journey of self-discovery over the course of the coming weekend.

In town for just a few days, he determines to sit down for a long-overdue face-to-face with his father (Ian Holm), a psychiatrist whose prescription pad has kept his son's emotions in a state of perpetual suspended animation and a dark family secret shrouded in mystery. However, Andrew's stay is prolonged when he runs into Mark (the always excellent Peter Sarsgaard), a stoner friend from high school who now works as a gravedigger and invites Andrew to a party he's going to after he buries his mom. Meanwhile, Andrew also chances upon quirky, fragile Sam (Natalie Portman)--an epileptic who, to one's pleasant surprise, doesn't succumb to the requisite attack--and finds he can share things with her he's kept buried for years.

Braff eschews the traditional three-act storytelling arc typically required of movies for a slice-of-life portrait over an admittedly bizarre weekend capped by an urban adventure that reveals niches of the Garden State that Andrew never knew existed. Among the absurdities are a new shirt from a mourning relative with a pattern so similar to the wallpaper in the hall bathroom his mother had redone before she died that Andrew becomes a literal wallflower; an old acquaintance who needs a golf cart to traverse the bare grand ballroom of the mansion he bought with the millions he made by inventing Silent Velcro; and waking up the night after a party to find a knight in a full suit of armor eating breakfast cereal at the kitchen table.

Yet he strikes a tone that refrains from betraying the gravity of his mother's death and the family secret that are at the heart of his emotional arrest. If there's fault to find, it's that in the latter half the film tips toward sentimentality, perhaps a byproduct of an empathy for the characters that no longer allows one to laugh at them.

Meanwhile, Braff, a black-and-white still photography hobbyist, exhibits a keen eye for cinematic composition, liberally blending fast-forward, slow-motion and time-lapse cinematography to emulate the bleary commotion of a drug-and-alcohol-fueled party. There's also one particularly exquisite shot of Braff and Portman in a swimming pool, in which an underwater light illuminates them from behind at a critical moment of connection.

But Braff's skill at visual storytelling is perhaps most apparent in the opening scene of the film, in which an airplane is experiencing turbulence, crashing, its passengers panicking as they try to secure their oxygen masks. And there's Andrew, expressionless, calmly staring straight ahead as he reaches up to turn on the air nozzle above his seat. It's a metaphor for how he's lived his whole life, numbed to what's going on around him by the prescription drugs that are supposed to make him happy. Starring Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Jean Smart and Rob Leibman. Directed and written by Zach Braff. Produced by Pam Abdy, Richard Klubeck, Gary Gilbert and Dan Halsted. A Fox Searchlight release. Comedy/Drama. Rated R for language, drug use and a scene of sexuality. Running time: 112 min

Tags: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Jean Smart, Rob Leibman, Pam Abdy, Richard Klubeck, Gary Gilbert, Dan Halsted, Fox Searchlight, Comedy, Drama, New Jersey, Andrew Largeman, funeral, Sam

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