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Garden State (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

Garden State

Garden State


Starring Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Ron Liebman, Method Man, Jean Smart, Ann Dowd, Denis O’Hare, Geoffrey Arend, Alex Burns, Jackie Hoffman, Michael Weston, Chris Carley, Armando Riesco, Amy Ferguson, Trisha LaFrache, Jim Parsons, Kenneth Graymez, George C. Wolfe, Austin Lysy, Gary Gilbert, Jill Flint and Debbon Ayer.

Screenplay by Zach Braff.

Directed by Zach Braff.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.   102 minutes.  Rated R.

You can’t really say this movie is the launching pad of a major new talent, just because we kind of knew him already.  However, I don’t think anyone had any idea of the depths of his talent.  Writer/director/star Zach Braff is best known for playing Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian on NBC’s popular sitcom Scrubs.  While he is very good in that role, his performance here is a revelation.  Add to that the fact that he wrote and directed the film, and I have to say my respect for him has skyrocketed.  Garden State is amazingly assured and imaginative for a first feature.

As a screenwriter, Braff has a nice, quirky, surreal, understated style.  If it’s possible to imagine, Garden State seems like a Gen-Y version of The Graduate written by a circa-World According to Garp John Irving.  The story, which is lightly autobiographical, is rather simple. 

Braff plays Andrew “Large” Largeman, a young LA actor who years ago had one good role as a retarded quarterback in a TV movie, but is now working as a waiter.  He has been on lithium since he was only ten-years-old due to a tragic family accident in which he pushed his mother and she tripped over the dishwasher door and was paralyzed.  Ever since he has been walking through life in a numbed haze. 

He has to go home to New Jersey for the first time in years because of his mother’s funeral.  He takes the opportunity to go off his meds for the first time since he was a child.  As he sees old friends and haunts and meets a beautiful-but-neurotic girl (Natalie Portman) for the first time in years he starts to experience life and feelings.

This straightforward description doesn’t come close to describing the surreal, comic and tragic depths of the story, though.  Nor does it do justice to the lyrical poetry of the language and the cinematography.  Braff has achieved the not inconsiderable feat of turning New Jersey into some kind of existential Oz.  Unlike the suburban nightmare the state is so often portrayed as in movies, here the Garden State is a wonderland of bottomless quarries, huge empty mansions and Rube Goldberg hamster contraptions.

As the drugs wear off in his system, Large is able to feel what it is like to be living for the first time since he was a prepubescent; the good, the bad, the ugly and the weird.  He finds his salvation in Sam (Portman), a cute, funny, epileptic and compulsive liar.  (She was also an ice skating crocodile in her not so distant past.) 

He also runs into high school friends like the guy who became a cop just because he had nothing better to do and no other way to meet girls, the one who has become a knight in a medieval restaurant and the one who has made a small fortune for selling the patent on a new silent velcro (just like regular velcro, he explains, but without that sound.) 

The old friend who opens his eyes the most, for good or bad, is Mark, a 26-year-old gravedigger who lives for get rich quick plans like planning to eventually sell his Desert Storm cards collection (if he can get back the pilfered Wolf Blitzer card to complete the set), selling admission to peepholes in a local hotel and pilfering from the corpses he is burying.

The amazing thing is, the more that he experiences, the more rapturous Braff’s portrayal becomes.  He is a man finally experiencing life for the first time ever (or at least since he was a prepubescent) and even when it hurts there is a wonder in the experience.  He also receives kind guidance by a neurologist (Ron Liebman) who delicately suggests that maybe it was time to find a new psychiatrist.

Most importantly, he is able to make a stormy peace with his father (Ian Holm), the psychiatrist who has always deep down blamed his son for his wife’s problems (though she was a manic depressive long before the accident that made her a paraplegic).  The father’s answer was to keep the boy medicated, trying to keep the peace in the family, but only keeping a hazy wall between them.

As the film comes to an end, there is great satisfaction in knowing that for the first time, Large is going to be equipped for life.  It may not turn out as he wants it, but at least he is experiencing it.  Perhaps that is the most important thing.  (8/04)

Ken Sharp

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: September 6, 2004.

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