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Garden State

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Garden State

Starring: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman
Director: Zach Braff
Rated: R
RunTime: 109 Minutes
Release Date: July 2004
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Kenneth Graymez, Method Man, Austin Lysy, Gary Gilbert, Michael Weston, Jean Smart, Alex Burns, Ann Dowd

Review by Jerry Saravia
3 stars out of 4

"Garden State" is the offbeat charmer that is only seen by a handful of people (though it may be gain some box-office status), and its charm and gradual shift in tone can only be appreciated by those with patience to spare. I admire the film and I think writer-director Zach Braff has great potential, but "Garden State" falls somewhat short. There is a lot to admire but it fails to deliver the true emotional payoff I believe it was aiming for.

Zach Braff plays Andrew Largeman, an L.A. actor and a waiter at a Vietnamese restaurant (where, of course, they serve no bread). He seems to live an isolated existence, nicely exemplified by an overhead shot of Andrew's pristinely white bedroom with no furniture. He gets a message from his estranged father (Ian Holm) reporting that his mother died drowning in her bathtub. Andrew returns to the garden state, good old New Jersey to the rest of you, goes to his mother's funeral, meets some of his old friends, and purposely avoids communicating with his father. We learn that Andrew's father is also his psychiatrist and has put his son on lithium and other anti-depressants for many years. The reason is that Andrew had inadvertently paralyzed his mother.

When Andrew returns home, he is in a perfunctory stupor - as if he was a stranger in a strange land. At the mother's funeral, one of the family's friends sings "Three Times a Lady" as part of her eulogy. Andrew's friend, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), works at the local cemetery and lives at home with his mother. Another of Andrew's friends has made millions by inventing noiseless velcro. All anyone seems to do in Andrew's age range is party, play "spin the bottle," smoke pot and consume ecstasy. That is until Andrew meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a pathological liar and a very content young woman. Her home life seems to be the kind you would find in New Jersey - there is a hamster and fish cemetery and bright colors around the house. Since Andrew has stopped taking medication, he has become more lively, more attuned to his life, and no doubt that Sam has helped engineer that as well.

As you can see, "Garden State" develops into a film involved with characters living with their foibles and eccentricities. There are also episodes where the term offbeat really comes into play. For example, there is a guy who works at a Middle Ages restaurant where he has to dress as a knight, and is dressed in full armor at the kitchen table. Mark keeps trading cards of the Gulf War and other collectibles so he can eventually sell it all and make a living. The noiseless velcro guy has a huge house with no furniture. There is a boat that sits at the top of a quarry. A shirt's design matches the wallpaper in a room. Andrew and Sam's only noticeable quirks is their growing love for each other.

But at the end of "Garden State," I felt somehow underwhelmed by the experience. Braff's Andrew undergoes major changes - he is on a journey of self-discovery and self-awareness. And the ending cheats him in a Hollywood resolution that is anticlimactic. Since the film follows Andrew's point-of-view, we are guided along by this journey with him, seeing the slow transition from indifference to acceptance and acknowledgment of the people in his life. The problem is the movie treats the character as someone who is overcome with love for Sam, rather than the real love he's been developing for himself.

On a positive note, Zach Braff and Natalie Portman play the cutest couple in a movie in some time. Braff shows his character's inner life with reserve and nuanced touches of humor - he's got the stuff to be a major actor (he can be seen on TV's "Scrubs"). Portman easily steals the film from everyone with her resplendent smile and her emotional outbursts - it is as a good a performance as you can imagine, though her character is underwritten. The point is that Braff and Portman are believable as a couple at every turn, except for that ending.

"Garden State" is an impressive debut for Zach Braff. He's also a fairly good writer, showing humanity, intelligence, compassion and laughs in equal measure. As a director, he has not shown his flair for the visual side just yet - in this film, New Jersey looks like Anywhere, USA. Still, he knows how to coax a performance out of anyone (for the record, Natalie Portman looks more animated than in either of the last two "Star Wars" flicks). And there may be one or two superfluous gags involving dogs, and I would loved more time spent on Andrew's father. In the end, "Garden State" is a hell of a good start.

Copyright 2004 Jerry Saravia

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