Affectionately wry yet disarmingly poignant, hilariously insightful yet accessibly awkward, infinitely quotable yet organic and unassuming, "Garden State" is a quarter-life-crisis comedy that may just be "The Graduate" for the arrested-development generation.
This merrily ironic tale of looming-maturity malaise has all the consternation of Mike Nichols' definitive touchstone of late-1960s coming-of-age. But in a surprise, triple-threat outburst of unforeseen talent and imagination, the film's writer, director and star -- Zach Braff from TV's "Scrubs" -- truly nails the psychological complexity and raised-on-MTV coercion that has pushed the pause button on coming to grips with adulthood. "Garden State" is, in part, a simile for how people in their 20s now try to extend the age of no responsibilities into their early 30s.
Braff gives a vulnerably acerbic performance as Andrew Largeman ("Large" to his friends), a droll, aimless Everymensch and long-frustrated actor (and sushi-bar waiter by day), who is taking two simultaneous big steps in his life: returning home to New Jersey after nine years to attend his mother's funeral, and doing so without his extensive private pharmacy of sense-dulling psychotropics.
Emerging from a lithium/Prozac/Paxil/Zoloft-induced haze that began in his teens under the misguided treatment of his parentally frustrated therapist father (Ian Holm), everywhere Large looks he sees hilarious eccentricity. Singers at the funeral bleat unspeakably. A doctor's office is lined with so many plaques that one is nailed to the ceiling. An overly gung-ho traffic cop turns out to be a cokehead high school classmate who now brags about his job benefits ("If I get shot, I'm hooked up for life!").
Reunited with two buddies who have been more willful than our soul-numbed hero about not growing up -- one accidentally became stinking rich and worry-free by inventing "silent Velcro," and the other (wonderfully chameleonic Peter Sarsgaard) has spent the better part of a decade getting stoned with his aging-punker mom (scene-stealing Jean Smart) -- the newly awakened Large is in dire need of a symbolic rescue.
All this abstract absurdity begins to coalesce and take shape in Large's unmuddy-ing when he meets Sam, a luminous, magnetically madcap chatterbox and instant (if tentative) soul-mate played by Natalie Portman in an ingenuous, dulcet performance that finally delivers on the promise she has always shown in lesser films.
Genuinely unaware how her sweet, blunt foibles can seem irresistibly flirtatious, Sam beguiles Large from the moment they meet when she watches in amusement as his leg is humped by a seeing-eye dog.
"Didn't you play that retarded quarterback?" she smiles, recognizing Large from his one significant role in a TV movie, much to his chagrin.
A sublimely honest alchemy of diminishing angst and gawky romance, "Garden State" has a depth of emotion that is rare for such a self-aware comedy -- and Braff has an entertainingly off-kilter sense of cinema that provides the film an almost first-person style that practically climbs inside Large's head. Braff shows us the world from his perspective while still giving the rest of the characters their three-dimensional due.
But the wit and beauty of this picture is in the writer-director's attention to the warm, idiosyncratic little details of everyday life -- be they emotional (Large quietly confessing to Sam that he tried to cry at the funeral but hadn't come down enough off his mood meds), be they environmental (there's a hamster maze that runs through every room of the cluttered, cozy house where Sam lives with her instantly affectionate mom) or be they in the way the characters inherently understand each other.
"You're totally freaked out right now. You just wanna run out the door," Sam laughs nervously but sympathetically as Large takes in the odd minutia of her mother's house.
Although a metaphorical misadventure that makes up most of the last act is a tad too unnaturally efficient in hitting all Braff's allegory points, "Garden State" is so transcendently funny and culturally spot-on that I couldn't begin to do its humor or humanity justice in a mere movie review. The film is too elusive in its insightfulness and ingenuity. In fact, I've barely even scraped the surface of the plot.
But in the hopes of giving you a sense of the movie's vibe (and at the risk of drawing too much of a parallel) let me return to one scene in "The Graduate" -- the one in which Benjamin Braddock looks up at a warped world through his scuba gear while sitting perplexed at the bottom of a swimming pool -- that's "Garden State" in a nutshell. (Braff also makes perfect, 'Graduate'-like use of a soundtrack featuring impeccably atmospheric tunes by Coldplay, The Shins, Remy Zero, Nick Drake, and yes, even Simon and Garfunkel.)
Large is an icon of those rut-stuck pushing-30s who are looking for a direction, beginning to face real life, and s-l-o-w-l-y realizing...it's not that bad. Zach Braff has the potential to be a unique voice in modern, melancholy cinema comedy. And even if he doesn't make it, "Garden State" is a destined to be a classic.
Run time: 102 mins
In Theaters: Friday 20th August 2004
Box Office USA: $26.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $26.8M
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight
Production compaines: Fox Searchlight Pictures, Double Feature Films, Jersey Films, Camelot Pictures, Large's Ark Productions
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Fresh: 161 Rotten: 26
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Zach Braff
Starring: Zach Braff as Andrew Largeman, Natalie Portman as Sam, Ian Holm as Gideon Largeman, Peter Sarsgaard as Mark, Kenneth Graymez as Busboy, Jean Smart as Carol, Armando Riesco as Jesse, Jackie Hoffman as Aunt Sylvia Largeman, Method Man as Diego, Alex Burns as Dave, Ron Leibman as Dr. Cohen, Jim Parsons as Tim, Michael Weston as Kenny, Ann Dowd as Olivia, Ato Essandoh as Titembay, Denis O'Hare as Albert, Trisha LaFache as Kelly, Geoffrey Arend as Karl Benson, George C. Wolfe as Restaurant Manager, Austin Lysy as Waiter, Gary Gilbert as Young Hollywood Guy