With his star on the rise thanks to his madcap role as Dr. Dorian in the hilarious and underrated "Scrubs", Zach Braff has decided to delve into the realm of film, with not just his notable big screen debut in front of the camera, but also his debut behind the camera, as the writer, director and star of the brilliantly quirky Garden State.
Braff stars in the title role as Andrew Largeman; out of work actor who's only noticeable triumph was on the small screen as a retarded American football quarterback, which won him a short time in the limelight. Feeling cold and sterile as he plods through his dazed life, filled up more with medication than any consequential or meaningful experiences and events, Andrew suddenly receives a call from his father that his mother has passed away. Retuning to his home in New Jersey for a few days, Andrew meets up with some of his old friends, including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a gravedigger who immediately invites him to a party, right after he has finished burying his mum.
Thinking his days back home will be fuelled by drugs and alcohol, Andrew meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a young epileptic girl who he connects to immediately, despite her weird personality and random concepts on life. As their relationship blossoms, Andrew becomes more and more open about his life and starts to reconnect with his real self, the self that through the assortment of medication his father (Ian Holm) has had him on every since he was young, has clouding his judgement and shielded him from the pain and anguish of real life, the life that Andrew feels he deserves a chance at living. Slowly, as Andrew begins to re-associate with the world, he slowly discovers that life, however troublesome or unhappy it may be, is what we make of it.
Of course, as you can guess, it's life that's the main theme of the film, and Braff's thoughtful and true look at one man trying to balance two things: a mid-life crisis that has bloomed a decade too early, and what his purpose is on this blue and green plain we call Earth. On every level, he succeeds in painting an honest and at times painful film as Andrew come to terms with why he finds it so difficult to just be himself when it seems easier to pull down the blind and live in a shadow. Now this does sound like a cheap "Lost In Translation" rip off, with Andrew being the younger reverse of Bill Murray's Bob Harris, as well as being similar, if not identical to every other “what does it all mean” films, but in Braff's hands, the film never preaches these ideals to the audience and he never pushes them into our faces, telling us that yes, this indeed is how life is and it is the same for us all. Instead, he creates a warm, frank look at how different people approach life and that whether we approach it with a smile or a frown, with energy or lethargy, to just enjoy it and be at peace with whoever it is that we are, because who knows when and where life will change for the better or worse.
Behind the camera, Braff's directorial debut is accomplished, consummate and mature beyond his years, and mixes the obvious life questions with the wackier comedy he is used to in Scrubs with a dry sense of humour that would not be out of place in a Woody Allen film. Allen himself I'm sure would be proud to have concocted the wonderful opening scene of the film, as Andrew, lifeless and motionless onboard a doomed plane full of hysterical people immediately before the inevitable crash, simply reaches up above his head and turns up the air nozzles, with the "seatbelts on" sign flashing above them. As the film progresses, Braff delivers more unforgettable comic scenes, all with an undeniable natural knack for dialogue, and perfectly timing his gags, both of the visual and verbal kind. But Braff never oversteps his mark with the comedy, and manages the more poignant and romantic elements story with as much thought and care; the blossoming romance between Andrew and Sam, and Andrew's on-going feud with his father play out at their own pace, never rushing or pressurising the tender moments to quickly move on to the next quirky moment or dog/sex joke. Indeed, if these more touching scenes didn't work, the movie would simply fall apart.
The director's use of imagery is also outstanding, making the mundane seem uplifting and joyful while bringing to life the New Jersey town in the most poignant way. The shots of Andrew driving around on his bike with the greenery of New Jersey flowing behind him give the film an added depth by just being so simple and realistic. His use of different camera techniques serve the film well too, with great use of slow and fast motion and the sweeping crane shots that add such character to the film.
The performances from all the cast are exceptional: Braff shies away from his maniacal Dr. Dorian in Scrubs, here becoming much more mundane and still as he allows Andrew's depressive character to drive his performance, while still being funny and timing his much more ironic humour perfectly. The ever-brilliant Peter Sarsgaard is the more sarcastic, dry character of the two here, and as always, his ability not only to immerse himself in a role but to do it with such grace and charm is exceptional, and he is fast becoming a personal favourite of mine. But the star of the show is Natalie Portman, who with this film and her exceptionally brave performance in Closer, has finally established herself as a female actor of beauty and class, brushing aside her child-star/ next-big-thing label she received when she was young and maturing before our very eyes, becoming a much more intelligent, alluring and funnier actress than any one could have predicted. Thankfully, Portman is not bogged down with crazy hairdos and awfully clichéd dialogue and excels as the eccentric and off-kilter Sam, with a beautiful combination of sweetness and charm that will make you fall in love with her yourself and gives the film it's grounded element, taking life for what it is and living life to the fullest. She's the kind of girl any man would die for (beauty, drinks and a great sense of humour, have I missed anything?) and lights up the film with grace and elegance.
There are so many classic moments in the film, that it's hard to pick a favourite. But that's a testament to Braff's talent as a rookie filmmaker, allowing himself to be free and take chances, where others may have been more conservative with some of the material, choosing to be solid rather than excel, workmanlike rather than expressive. But any filmmaker who can fill a film with enough memorable and poignant moments to fill up three or four films deserves enormous credit. I'm sure like me you'll be hard pressed to find a favourite, but whether it's the "something completely original" scene that Portman excels in, Andrew awakening to find a knight walking around the kitchen, or even the rain-soaked moment of emancipation as our three different souls stand on the cliff-face of life, and scream their troubles down into the "infinite abyss", your sure to have found something in the film that makes you raise your cheekbones high and smile as wide and as hard as you could ever do. But hey, if you shed a tear at any moment, that's no bad thing. In fact, it's kind of the point.
Our Review Ethos