Garden State Review

In this offbeat independent comedy, a young man who’s spent his life on medications returns home for his mother’s funeral and meets a lively young woman who gives him a new perspective on life. Zach Braff writes, directs and stars alongside Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard and Ian Holm. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.

Natalie Portman gives the most endearing performance of the year in the quirky independent comedy Garden State. She’s playing Sam, a motormouthed young woman who likes to tell people she’s a compulsive liar but not always. The film’s protaganist, Andrew Largeman – or Large – first makes her acquaintance when an amorous guide dog tries to hump his leg in a doctor’s waiting room and he notices a pretty girl with a walkman laughing hysterically at his predicament. Sam apologises, tells him she owns two Dobermans that do the same to her and advises him to kick the horny mutt in the balls. Soon she’s sitting on the back of his vintage motorcycle, wearing a weird-looking helmet and working her way into his heart.

Large, played by the film’s writer and director Zach Braff, is a twentysomething who has spent much of his young life doped up on medications prescribed by his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm). He’s a onetime TV star who moved to Los Angeles in his teens, watched his acting career rise with the same drugged numbness as he watched it fall and now waits tables for a living. Large is forced out of his stupor when his father calls and tells him his mother has died. His return home for her funeral marks the first time he has been back to his childhood town in New Jersey (the Garden State of the title) since leaving it for Hollywood. It’s also the first time he’s been without his meds, which he’s absent-mindedly left in LA.

While he’s in Jersey, to keep awkward contact with his father to a minimum, Large hooks up with some old high school pals and spends his time hanging with them, partying with them and experiencing their empty lives. His friends seem to be as disaffected as he is and without prescription drugs as an excuse. Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) digs graves for a living, Jesse (Armando Riesco) struck it rich with an invention – silent velcro! – and is now bored of his wealth, while Kenny (Michael Weston) is an unlikely police officer. “The last time I saw you, you were snorting coke off a urinal”, Large reminds him. As he comes off the meds, Large begins to suffer headaches and feelings of uneasiness and he’s sent by his father to an neurosurgeon’s office, which is where he meets Sam.

Garden State makes you laugh so hard and so regularly that you may be surprised by the emotional impact of its final scenes. It’s not that anything staggering happens – thousands of films have ended the same way – but you care so deeply for these people that their fate takes on a huge importance. This belongs on a short list of films, including Before Sunrise and Lost In Translation, that convince you you’re watching two people fall in love. Large and Sam talk about their lives, they talk about nothing, they tease each other, they sometimes hurt each other, all the while sounding like interesting and likeable people who may well be right for each other, not movie characters pre-ordained to fall in love at a certain point in the script. Films like this show up lazy rom-coms like Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason, which builds its love story out of absurd contrivances and relies on an expensive chart-pop soundtrack to touch your emotions because the script-writers aren’t capable of it. To rub salt into the wound, Garden State has the better soundtrack by miles.

This is also a film with something to say about life. Large has been tranquilising himself with pills since childhood, but in his numbness he doesn’t seem out of place among his family, his friends, the strangers he meets or the customers he serves at work. Numbness has become a goal for many of us, particularly members of Large’s jaded generation. We try our best to avoid emotion – showing we have feelings is just not done, it’s not cool man – and when we can’t avoid it, we anaesthetise ourselves with any number of drugs, medical and recreational, legal and illegal. Here’s a film about a man who’s had anaesthesia forced upon him, who’s grown used to it, grown comforted by it, and who’s afraid to leave its reassuring lull. He’s lucky enough to meet a woman so alive and so unafraid of life that he’s empowered to take a risk and start feeling again and ultimately he’s given the choice between embracing life with all of its ups and downs or running back to safety. Braff never spells this out like a cheesy Sandra Bullock vehicle might have but the theme is there and it’s partly what gives Garden State its emotional hook. It reminded me a little of Fearless, Peter Weir’s 1993 drama about a plane crash survivor. The films have little else in common but they share a strong, cathartic power.

If Garden State has a flaw, it’s that Ian Holm’s character – Large’s father – isn’t fleshed out a little more. The man we see is gruff but reasonable, yet the way he’s treated his son implies serious mental problems. It would be easier to accept the movie’s premise, that Large has spent most of his life drugged on his father’s orders, if we could believe his father was capable of that. That’s a small reservation however. Mostly the writing is top notch and the acting is flawless. An Oscar nomination for Portman would be richly deserved, Peter Sarsgaard is superb as Large’s moody best friend and Zach Braff himself, who is new to me (he’s in the US sitcom Scrubs), makes a very strong impression. For a director making his first feature film, Braff’s work is astonishingly assured. He and cinematographer Lawrence Sher give it a hauntingly beautiful look that compliments the tone perfectly. For any director, Garden State would be a major achievement: this is a wonderful film, one of the best I’ve seen the year.

Kevin O'Reilly

Updated: Dec 17, 2004

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Garden State Review | The Digital Fix