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.
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