Garden State


Zach Braff as Andrew Largeman
Natalie Portman as Sam
Ian Holm as Gideon Largeman
Peter Sarsgaard as Mark
Method Man as Diego
Jean Smart as Carol
Alex Burns as Dave
Jackie Hoffman as Aunt Sylvia Largeman
Michael Weston as Kenny
Armando Riesco as Jesse
Amy Ferguson as Dana
Trisha LaFrache as Kelly
Jim Parsons as Tim
Jayne Houdyshell as Mrs. Lubin
Ron Leibman as Dr. Cohen
Ann Dowd as Olivia
Ato Essandoh as Titembay
Wynter Kullman as Pam
Geoffrey Arend as Karl Benson

Andrew Largeman (Braff) is a third rate L.A. television actor who must return home to Jersey when his mother dies. Wandering around in a highly medicated state, he meets Sam (Portman), a quirky young woman who becomes his companion on a number of adventures through Jersey, teaching Largeman that there is a lot more to life than what he left back in Los Angeles.

Considering how many big “buzz movies” have come out this summer, not from the big studios, but smaller films that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s amazing when one comes along that takes you by surprise despite having high expectations. Plenty of television actors have thrown their hat into the ring of directing an independent feature, but few of them pull it off as well as Zach Braff does with his first movie, Garden State, a very original take on the overused term “romantic comedy”.

It takes a bit of time to get used to the disjointed storytelling as Braff’s character Andrew Largeman, better known to his friends as “Large”, is dragged from one location to another meeting strange characters before quickly moving on. Everyone at least once in their life has spent a day being dragged around by a friend for reasons only known to them to discover that the quest is often more memorable than the actual destination. While not all of the disparate scenes work, the ones that do are amazing.

Since Large is heavily medicated for the first half hour of the movie, Braff isn’t responsible for delivering the laughs that his “Scrubs” fans may be used to. The humor is far more subtle than you might expect, often resorting to sight gags that are more surreal than funny. The characters he meets are not strange in the “Twin Peaks” sense, but more mundane and odd, driven to take their quirks as far as they can. It makes you wonder if there is anyone even remotely normal in Braff’s New Jersey.
Leave it to Natalie Portman to be Garden State’s savior, something she does quite admirably as the quirky Sam, an adorably insane presence who changes the entire tone of the movie. She is the kind of woman that is almost impossible to not fall in love with, but also one that you know will be trouble for someone as emotionally stinted as Largeman. Then again, you can’t help but love someone who has her own personal hamster cemetery in her backyard. Sam/Natalie’s freedom of thought and expression is what keeps the movie fresh and interesting, not only because she brings out the best in Largeman in sharing her life with him, but as an actress, Portman brings out the very best in Braff. The chemistry between the two of them is so real and natural that it’s almost impossible to not fall in love with the potential of their relationship. Essentially, Sam pulls Large out of his shell forcing his much-needed transformation in a similar to Kate Winslet’s role in Michel Gondry’s wonderful Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind.

As Largeman’s best friend and chronic bad influence, Peter Saarsgard pulls out another hilarious performance, his trademark dry wit bringing so much to every one of his scenes. You know that things are good when Sir Ian Holm, better known to some as Bilbo Baggins, has the least interesting character as Large’s father and psychiatrist. It’s not much of a stretch for Holm even with the stilted American accent, and though their relationship is as important as the one Large has with Sam, most of their scenes are not the movie’s strongest moments.

Braff’s background as a video director is evident from the way he seamlessly merges the mellow songs of Coldplay and The Shins into the story, and he brings a stylish eye to every scene without getting too flashy or obvious. Sure, there are a few times where the movie becomes in danger of turning into an extended music video, but that may only be due to the nature of the storytelling. Of course, when you put a Simon and Garfunkel song into a movie like this, you’re just asking for comparisons to The Graduate, but there are probably worse ways to get your film career in gear than to solicit comparisons to Dustin Hoffman.

The Bottom Line:
Zach Braff’s deeply endearing movie about home, family and love is the ultimate movie for dreamers and romantics. It will secretly sneak up on you, and the tears you may experience from watching the movie will be out of joy that someone finally understands what it’s like to feel lost and how wonderful it is to find someone that can pull you out of it. Very few movies have gotten that sentiment on film as well as Garden State.