Garden State Review

At one point in Garden State, the debut of actor/writer/director Zach Braff, a mother says to her son and his friend, “Don’t stay in the house all day … “ - (we wait for some caring paean to the benefits of fresh air and exercise) - “because I took the batteries out of the carbon monoxide detector.” That’s a great line, even if it’s far from being the funniest in the film, because it sums up the subversion of expectation which embodies this movie. Time and again, the situations and dialogue surprise and please you. When the hero, Andrew (Braff) goes to see a neurosurgeon, the session ends up with the doctor sharing his own problems – “I found my best friend’s cufflinks in my wife’s purse. I couldn’t get an erection for a year and a half!” Surprise isn’t the only thing a writer has to do but it’s a rare talent who can keep it going throughout an entire movie.

The story of the film threatens to be too contrived but just about holds together. Andrew was a TV child star who moved to LA to find stardom. His career slowly fell apart while he lost all connection to the New Jersey town in which he grew up. Whilst in LA, he has been kept in medicated numbness by his father (Holm), a psychiatrist. Andrew comes back home when his mother dies, leaving his medication back in LA. Once he arrives back in New Jersey, he encounters people he knew when he was younger – Jesse (Riesco), the millionaire inventor of silent Velcro; Mark (Sarsgaard), a gravedigger; and Kenny (Weston), one-time dopehead who has given in to the establishment and become a cop. He somehow can’t connect to any of this, perturbed by coming off his drugs and bewildered by his surroundings. Then, at the neurosurgeon’s office, he meets Sam (Portman), a troubled young woman with a penchant for lying, and the two form a connection which threatens to force Andrew back into the land of the living.

The film contains nods to other movies - The Graduate, Harold and Maude, Beautiful Girls and various works by Robert Altman and John Sayles – but the tone and feel of the film make it seem startlingly original. It’s been said that the film resembles Lost In Translation, another work which seemed to throw away the rule book and become something beautiful and strange. But the characters in Braff’s film are more concrete and credible and the setting is captured with a good deal more affection. You sense that Braff is in love with both these people and this place and his love communicates itself in gorgeous scenes such as when Andrew and Sam sit in a swimming pool and discuss the idea of home.

In this sequence, Braff demonstrates his subtle skill. He begins with his characters in medium shot, slowly moving towards them; not intruding too closely into their relationship but never keeping them too far out of reach. The spell is only broken with a close-up when the pair’s seclusion is interrupted.

Andrew is a fascinating lead character because he’s not especially heroic in any traditional sense but is still incredibly sympathetic. He is often a blank canvas on which the audience is invited to draw emotion and purpose and he frequently sits in the middle as other characters whirl around him, demonstrating a vitality which he can’t quite share. In one remarkable scene, he confesses that he was the reason for his mother being in a wheelchair and such is the skill with which the confession is drawn out by Braff, we neither judge him nor blame him. Braff’s performance is perfectly pitched between emotional distance and slight catatonia and when he comes out of his shell, largely due to Sam’s influence, it’s very satisfying.

Natalie Portman is even better as Sam. It’s been clear for some time that she’s one of the best actresses of her generation – and it’s ironic that she played a similarly life-enhancing role in Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls, a film which resembles this one in its quiet poignancy – and this is a very fine performance. Everything Sam does is a little bit odd – the way she talks and talks, as if something has shorted in her head and she can’t close her mouth; the way she wears a daft cycle helmet; her sudden decision to tap-dance in a room lit-up by open flames – and Portman somehow manages to make this difficult, awkward woman neither annoying nor sentimental.

The climax, which isn’t entirely unpredictable, is made satisfying because we have such emotional investment in the two leading characters. My colleague Kevin O’Reilly wrote in his review of the film that “you care so deeply for these people that their fate takes on a huge importance” and I think that perfectly sums-up the effect of the film. Add the exceptional supporting performance of Peter Sarsgaard – one of the most consistently impressive actors around – and a low-key, restrained performance from Ian Holm as Andrew’s stiff-backed father, and you have a film which is as well acted as anything I’ve seen in the past year.

I think it’s clear that the things which make this such an impressive film are the script and the performances but Braff is certainly no slouch in the directing department. The pacing is masterly – the film ambles along but never seems slow or dull because there are always bits of dialogue or moments of performance to relish. This isn’t a film which is likely to appeal to anyone who demands a strong narrative but if you’re willing to go along with it then it’s a lot more satisfying than any action blockbuster you care to mention. The cinematographer Lawrence Sher gives the film a slightly magical sheen which adds to overall effect. He can do showy as well as any DP but the heart of the film is in moments such as the one in the cabin towards the end where the light is so velvet-soft that you can almost feel it against your skin.

Admittedly, some areas of the film don’t work as well as others and some of the scenes are clearly thrown in to up the quirkiness quotient rather than any more pressing reason. But it’s easy to forgive occasional lapses into the comically off-beat when a first film is as good as this one. The soundtrack cradles the action in beautifully gentle swathes of rock and folk – the use of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy In New York” to back a slightly wacked-out rain-drenched scream into a crevasse, asserting and affirming the power of living, has gone straight into my all-time favourite movie moments.

It’s easy to choose suitable songs for a soundtrack but to choreograph them into the action so that the key lines echo the sentiments onscreen is more difficult – here, Paul Simon sings “Like it shines on me” right at the apex of the scene’s emotional curve after Andrew and Sam have shared their first kiss. At times like this, you want to tell everyone to watch this movie in the hope that it might mean as much to them as it does to you. That’s quite something.

The Disc

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s an excellent transfer with very strong colours – one of the major strengths of the film – and good contrast. There is a slightly grainy appearance but this is suitably filmlike and no problems with artifacting or edge-enhancement.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also highly impressive. It’s an involving track which uses the surround channels to immerse the viewer in the world of the film with much emphasis placed on the music track. This is exactly the kind of track which is needed for the film and it comes across beautifully.

Several extras are included. The most notable are two audio commentaries, Both feature Zach Braff. On the first one, he’s joined by Natalie Portman and on the second, he’s accompanied by DP Lawrence Sher, editor Myron Kerstein and production designer Judy Becker. I’m not keen on those commentary tracks which everyone else calls ‘fun’ because I prefer a bit of serious analysis to people trying to make each other laugh. But Braff and Portman have plenty of chemistry and they clearly enjoy watching the film. The second track has rather more meat to it with plenty of technical information and comments on the problems which need to be overcome by the first time director, particularly when he’s also starring.

We also get sixteen deleted scenes, presented in timecoded format with optional commentary. None of these are essential, although they certainly enhance some of the characters, particularly that played by Ian Holm. There are a few good jokes contained within these scenes and I particularly liked the one where Kenny propounds his philosophy on child-rearing. Also present is ‘Making of Garden State’ which runs 27 minutes and is strong on production footage and interviews. It’s backed by some of the score from the film and is a lot more satisfying than your average making-of featurette. It’s also a little bit self-congratulatory but that’s probably to be expected. A big advantage is that it gives you the background to the film. A selection of outtakes/bloopers is offered, none of them any funnier than the average, and a highly dispensable soundtrack promo spot.

The film is divided into 24 chapters. The extras are not subtitled in English but subtitles in other languages are offered for the making-of and deleted scenes.

Garden State is a lovely surprise, a film which you may well fall in love with. To claim it’s a great movie would be overstating its importance but it’s fair to say that Zach Braff’s second film will be something to look forward to. This DVD presents the film well and offers some interesting extra features.

9 out of 10
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