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 V.13 No.34 | August 19 - 25, 2004 

Film Review

Garden State

Intimate writing/directing debut is is not your garden variety comedy

“Remember in high school when we used to hang out with chicks, get blitzed and sit on my parents couch all weekend. ... Boy, times have changed.”

Garden State

Directed by Zach Braff

Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm

But what I really want to do is direct: It's been a lament uttered by overly ambitious actors since the dawn of the motion picture era. Charlie Chaplin did it. Orson Welles did it. Mel Gibson did it. Now Zach Braff, star of NBC's hit comedy "Scrubs," is stepping behind the camera for his multi-hyphenate debut, the indie comedy Garden State.

Like those brave, foolhardy or just plain egotistical filmmakers before him, Braff set out to write, direct and star in his own movie. Thankfully, the resulting film is a multifaceted little gem, free of Hollywood hubris, sparkling with real-world emotion and set with a fine sense of humor. No small wonder it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Braff stars as Andrew Largeman, a benumbed and decidedly nonfamous TV actor who finds himself sucked back to his suburban New Jersey hometown for the funeral of his paraplegic mother. Andrew apparently abandoned his past 10 years ago and hasn't cast a glance back since. Now, he's stuck in New Jersey, hanging out with his go-nowhere high school pals (including Peter Sarsgaard) and dancing delicately around a reunion with his estranged father (Sir Ian Holm).

Zach Braff trades in his scrubs.

They say you can never go home again. They're full of shit. Of course, you can. What they really mean is, you should never go home again. "You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn't really your home anymore?" asks Andrew in one of his many philosophical moments. Despite a desire to move beyond his past, Andrew hasn't exactly set the world on fire as a movie star. Clearly the kid's got to deal with some deep-seated family issues.

Some obvious trepidation aside, Andrew seems largely nonplussed by the whole homecoming thing. Perhaps that's because he's spent nearly his entire life hooked up to some form of mood-altering drug or another, courtesy of his overprotective psychologist father. With his steady diet of Prozac, Zoloft, Ritalin or whatever else is handy, Andrew is one big bottle of nerves with a very large cap on it. This boy is in serious need of a cap-popping.

Shortly after his arrival in New Jersey, Andrew bumps into Sam (Natalie Portman in certainly her best screen role). Sam is the kind of cute/crazy chick for whom men have an eternal soft spot. Sam's a pathological liar, she lives with her mother, she works at a law office, she has epilepsy, she's crazy for pets: I could go on. In fact, I could go on in great detail about a lot of the characters that drift through this wonderful character piece. I doubt I could say the same for any other characters in any other film I've seen this summer. Braff fell in love with these people before he started making this movie, and the actors have done the same, investing them with breath, emotion and humanity.

Braff has put a great deal of effort into this debut offering, created a film that is inventive without being overbearing. Visually, Garden State is a trippy delight. Scene after scene, Braff constructs indelible images of isolation and disassociation. (An opening dream sequence with an airliner going down in flames and Andrew casually adjusting his air flow nozzle is a classic example.) Even more amazing is Braff's script, which surely deserves some Best Original Screenplay attention. I can't recall another film this year with such engaging characters. (Maybe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) Every character in this film has real meat on their bones. They are each an accretion of fears, dreams, tics, neuroses, habits and passions. I feel like I know them somehow, like I wouldn't be at all surprised to see pictures of them in my high school yearbook.

Garden State isn't exactly action-packed. The film's intimate story line gives us a (belated) coming-of-age tale, a little bit of familial reconciliation, a bunch of wistful hanging out with old friends and some coy romance. Its joys are simple. The look is memorable. The jokes are hilarious. The soundtrack (featuring The Shins) is a must-have. Natalie Portman is cute as all get out.

Home may just be a state of mind. But with Zach Braff in charge, it's a wonderful state to be in.

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