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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

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Some say you can't go home again, but 28-year-old Zach Braff disagrees. Braff, the writer-director and principal actor in this Sundance favorite performs in the role of a 26-year-old fellow who return to his birthplace in New Jersey after a nine-year stay in L.A., where he works in a Vietnamese restaurant most of the time and occasionally gets some gigs on TV. "Garden State" packs an awful lot of information into one zany weekend in a story which, broadly outlined, informs us that Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) has been on the outs with his psychiatrist dad, Gideon Largeman (Ian Holm) during the entire time that Zach is away. In a few precious days of fun, solemnity and most of all love, he realizes that life back east just may be so good that all the jokes that New Yorkers love to tell about New Jersey simply have no relevance.

On second thought the Jersey gags do have some truth, given the ensemble of characters that call the garden state their home, people who are known by Zach and some whom he meets–but all contribute to the fellow's realization that life is a strange and wonderful abyss, so we may as well stay away from the rim and learn from its sad moments and zany times as well.

And what a cast of characters! No sooner does he arrive for his mother's funeral than he runs into a funky group of oddballs, particularly his best friend from way back, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who has not become a brain surgeon or rocket scientist but a stoner employed in a dead-end job (so to speak): a grave digger, who happens to toss the dirt over Zach's mother. Others include Mark's hip and equally stoned mom, Carol (Jean Smart) who despite her predilection for the weed loves to nag her son to make something of himself.

Zach's somewhat late coming-of-age, call it a revitalization, involves his metamorphosis from a zonked-out, emotionally numb young man strung out on lithium and an entire medicine cabinet of anti-depressant drugs prescribed by his well-meaning but tragically wrong-headed psychiatrist father. His dad has never stopped blaming his boy for Zach's involvement in an accident that caused the boy's mother to become paralyzed from the waist down. He emerges from the apathy brought out by the medication when he meets the quirky Samantha (Natalie Portman), a pixie-ish woman in her early twenties who claims right off that she often lies and who, despite her high energy and good-sport nature is a girl who is troubled in her own way. Neuroses attract.

While "Garden State" is above all a romantic comedy that is thankfully not in the vein of the insipid love stories that pass for reality in Hollywood, Braff populates his indie-budget story, shot in just 25 days during a break in his career with NBC's sitcom "Scrubs," with a flurry of vignettes that are sometimes off-the-wall funny and, when not, are distinctly amusing. His visit to a neurologist, Dr. Cohen (Ron Leibman), is a gem in itself, with Leibman acting to type as a hail-fellow doc whose way of creating rapport is to crack a joke, then move from his desk to sit beside his patient–who had been complaining of headaches, and who can blame him with all the junk he's swallowing per his father's advice? Shortly thereafter, Mark introduces him during a pouring rain to a man and woman and their baby–all of whom live in an biblical-style ark overlooking a chasm of natural beauty, a kind of Grand Canyon, over which develops have talked of destroying to make way for a mall.

Not a scene is wasted, from an opener showing this emotionally numb Largeman as a waiter in an L.A. restaurant who seems to be in his own world, insisting to a customer that his establishment does not have bread because "it's Vietnamese." This is an assured work filled with oddball humor, a slice of life that sometimes lags during the writer-director's scenes with Natalie Portman (who can become annoying with her too-obvious quirkiness) but which on the whole show what can be done with a small budget and a limited number of days, making multiple takes of scenes out of the question.

Copyright © 2004 Harvey Karten

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