Garden State Review
“Last time I saw you, you were doing coke-lines off a urinal.”
This was a movie that, until receiving it for review, I had almost totally ignored. Twenty-somethings, family angst, indie-comedy-drama ... it just didn't sing out to me as anything even remotely rewarding - although it did have Natalie Portman in it! So it was with some degree of low expectation that I let the disc spin and yet, I have to tell you, folks, that Garden State then defied all my sad preconceptions and bounced itself quite euphorically into that ever-growing list of my favourite movies. Put purely and simply, there is absolute genius at work here. With his directorial debut, the multi-talented Zach Braff, who also wrote and starred in the film, has crafted a most sublime, perceptive and magical modern-day odyssey that literally glides by with a bewitching, leisurely guile and still manages to pack in a huge emotional punch. This is the kind of storytelling that never preaches nor condescends, that refuses to patronise or sell out, yet still leaves you with the undeniable knowledge that you have just learned something deep and vital about the human soul. Wow. How many comedies can you say that about?
Returning home for his mother's funeral in New Jersey after nine long years, alienated and emotionally detached actor and put-upon waiter Andrew “Large” Largeman (Braff) finds he must confront the past, with all its traumas and a father, played with gut-wrenching introspection by Ian Holm, that he simply cannot connect with. Put like that Braff's tale of spiritual awakening doesn't sound too enticing, yet it isn't the destination, grasshopper, but the journey that the vulnerable Large must undertake that bestows the riches. And the remarkable treasures on his path to enlightenment are brought to life with an awesome and eclectic cast of characters that re-populate his abstract, vacant world and gently nudge him back into tune with his feelings. From his amiably goofball school friends like Peter Sarsgaard's perpetually stoned gravedigger Mark and a buddy who made millions after inventing silent Velcro, to the luminous and free-spirited beauty Sam, a revelatory Portman, at her most captivating, whom he meets in a shrink's waiting room. They may all be dysfunctional and slightly screwed-up but they are the beacons signalling Large's return to the human race from the Lithium-induced fugue prescribed by his psychiatrist father.
“I found my ex-best friend's cufflinks in my wife's purse - I couldn't get an erection for a year and a half.”
In other hands this fable of mid-youth dislocation could so easily have devolved into a pure Generation X slacker-rant, but Braff skilfully weaves his characters through a languid spiral of unforced discovery, mutual understanding and emotional redemption with a maturity and wit that belies a first-time helmer, and does it with astonishingly irresistible charm. That it is consistently laugh-out loud funny and contains one of the softest, most endearing on-screen romances, warmly built-upon by Braff and Portman in scenes that veer in mid-sentence from playfulness to tears, enables the film to meander leisurely and jettison formula to the winds.
Along the way there are some wonderful moments of comic invention - the shirt that a relative insists he try on at his mother's wake, a great arrest sequence involving a coke-addled cop, the superb, but cringe-worthy fast food knight who can speak Klingon and the secret voyeuristic tunnel in Method Man's hotel. There's also an intoxicating sense of the surreal with Large, for the most part, absently becoming a bemused bystander to the chaos and fun taking place around him, his isolation captured splendidly with speeded-up film or merely just a slight eye-rolling from Braff as he looks on, cut off from the good times that he, himself, helps to inspire. He's certainly a kooky character, but an eminently likeable one. His almost morbid outlook on life's spontaneity is effortlessly defused with the hope you can clearly see twitching away in his expressions. Is it just me, or does Braff remind you of Jamie Oliver? Just check out the party scene early on with revellers having a great time all around Large, who simply sits calmly amidst it all like the eye of the storm. Handled with less care moments like these could have felt like Donnie Darko riffs.
“Kind of an odd job ... guardian of the infinite abyss.”
And then there's Natalie Portman. Always able to bring something new and vital to a role (well, perhaps I'm stretching that a bit when you consider her robotic turns in Star Wars) she simply shines here. Lively, tender, excitable, fragile - she manifests the full range as the compulsive liar Sam, the catalyst for Large's unavoidable salvation. There's so many terrific little turns in her performance that you'll be breathless just watching her. The movie doesn't really go very far and it defiantly takes its time to get there, but there's more mileage in just one of her touching scenes with Braff than in any number of big studio rom-coms. The sequence in her family's pet cemetery, the bathtub catching of a tear, the heartbreaking farewell at the airport and, best of all, the lunatic moment of inspired unique-ness - you'll know it when you see it - are all pitched perfectly. Nothing here is dealt with a sledgehammer, every nuance is subtle, every look guaranteed to melt the hardest of hearts. The two leads complement one another as though it really was pre-ordained, allowing us to not only care about them but to enjoy just hanging out with them as well.
The richness in front of the camera is matched by the expertise behind it, too. Braff's assured command of the visuals allows the movie to develop with an unhurried, unfussy ease of direction that simply stands back and admires. Oh, there may be the odd slow-mo cool entrance, whip-fast comic edit and that tasty steadicam shot at the start that tracks Large as he walks through the restaurant where he works, but in the main there is a pleasing lack of gimmicky flourishes. We won't talk about the appalling CG shot of the quarry pit, though. Lawrence Sher's photography is full of beautifully composed widescreen images, every shot looking so painterly and majestic that I was often reminded of the gorgeously framed work of the Coen brothers. The little tap-dance that Sam does in front of the roaring open fire and the supremely atmospheric pet cemetery scene should win awards just for colour and hue. Even the pool party in the fog forms a memorable image.
“What could be ruder than talking about someone else who's died while you are in the act of burying your best friend?”But it is the magic of the simple story itself that casts the greatest spell of all. Garden State can be stupid, irreverent, poignant and touching, spinning on a dime with all manner of emotions yet never overplaying any one of them even for a second. I think the cleverest testament to the quality of Braff's script is the incredible way in which powerful revelations - like the real reason that Sam had to give up ice-skating - is delivered almost matter-of-factly with the players reigning everything in with dignified reserve. Despite the often frivolous and zany proceedings that take place we always think that the big emotional wallop is just a heartbeat away. But it is the expertise of its slow-drip delivery that brands Zach Braff as a major talent to watch. With foundations as rock-solid as Garden State beneath him, he could soon be towering above the competition, once his commitment to TV's excellent Scrubs sets him free. An excellent film, hilarious and heartfelt. Just goes to show that you should never trust any preconceptions you might have.