Garden State is the first time movie from a writer/director/actor I’ve already heard at least three people refer to as “that guy from that show.” The good news is that guy from that show, Zach Braff, is pretty talented and shows it by delivering a creative and heartfelt effort in his first high profile work outside of TV’s “Scrubs.” Braff may be a rookie, but he clearly knows what he’s doing in front of, behind, and around the camera.
He stars as Andrew Largeman, a pill popping, Hollywood actor-wannabe (his only role of note was as a retarded quarterback) prompted by the death of his mother to return home, a place he hasn’t been to in nine years. Since his departure he’s been living in a lithium induced emotional coma and the film opens with a Largeman nightmare that finds him calmly adjusting an air vent while in his dream the plane he’s riding hurls itself into the ground. He’s disconnected from the world, knows it, and so takes his trip home as an opportunity to take a vacation from his cabinet full of pills as well.
“Large” comes home with a lot of repressed angst and spends most of his time in Jersey avoiding the serious conversation he needs to have with his father (Ian Holm). Instead he pokes around town discovering old acquaintances he’s forgotten and peeking in on friends who all seem to have built quirky and somewhat failed lives during his extended absence. Mark (played by the wonderful Peter Sarsgaard) is a grave digger, heavy into serious drugs and serious about making his own way in the world. Mostly he makes his way by stealing jewelry off of bodies before he buries them. Another old friend made it big when he invented silent Velcro a few years ago and has since found nothing to do with his millions or himself that doesn’t lead to bouts of incurable boredom. He fills his endless days by throwing Ecstasy parties, one of which leads to a successful game of spin the bottle for Andrew. Another has become a “fast-food knight” who dates his friends’ mothers, yet another an overzealous cop. It’s a dip back into loserville for Largeman as he reconnects with some of his past, facing it for the first time without being heavily medicated.
But Andrew stays emotionally dead until he runs into a girl named Sam (Natalie Portman), a habitual deceiver and occasionally precocious thing with a way of electrifying everyone around her. Large spends every subsequent moment with her, at first as friends and then as something more while Garden State blossoms into a romantic vein. Samantha has typical cutesy love interest written all over her and occasionally drifts towards becoming irritatingly predictable, but Portman handles her with a brand of down to earth, lovable grace that works well with Braff’s wry and sarcastic Largeman. The two become a sort of dynamic duo, with her playing Robin to his Batman in an uneasy exploration of what Largeman left in this little place from his past.
Braff is both confident and endearing as a performer and a director. His movie has an enchanting type of charm that succeeds as a character study yet struggles to be about something much larger. It’s a movie reaching out to the lonely, the lost, and the depressed; words which seem these days to describe just about everyone but especially those in Braff’s peer group. It wants desperately to be one of those defining movies of its generation, the type that in the eighties always seemed to star John Cusack, only in this case retooled for the late twenty-something’s. I don’t know if it ever really hits all the right notes to achieve that, but Garden State does have strong resonance in a world where many people are at a similar lifeline crossroads. It may not end up making the generational statement it’s grasping for, but it is a thoughtful and eccentric movie that’ll win audiences and hearts with refreshing honesty and unpredictability.
As a movie from a first time filmmaker who is not only directing but writing and starring as well, Garden State is a revelation and likely only a foregleam of great things to come from that guy from that show. Compared against other movies out in theaters, Garden State is a surprisingly deep, humorous, and enlightening bit of film that’ll leave you feeling filled to the brim. Braff guides his first movie with an expert hand as his dry, acerbic wit flies off the screen with an even-handed feeling of subtlety. Garden State uses beautiful cinematography, amazing music, and a phenomenal cast to create a unique and energizing movie going experience. It’s somewhat of a shame to think Braff will follow this up by giving voice to Disney’s destined to be mediocre kids flick Chicken Little. Once that’s over with, keep an eye out for that guy from this movie’s follow-up.