Garden State

Zach Braff

BY Kathleen OlmsteadPublished Aug 1, 2004

Garden State has a promising start. You might not expect greatness but you are hopeful for a quirky, sweet film, which is why its ending of forced optimism is so frustrating.

Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff, who also writes and directs, and is best known for his role on Scrubs) returns to New Jersey for his mother's funeral. He is a mildly successful actor working as a waiter and floating through life. This is not Rick Moody's version of the Garden State but it does have similar themes of disaffected 20 somethings and too many drugs. In Largeman's case, his psychiatrist father prescribes the drugs. Since the age of ten he has lived under the haze of Lithium or Ritalin, leaving him dulled and distant. He leaves his pills in California, using this trip as an excuse to break free and face his past and his emotions.

Braff has assembled a strong supporting cast — Ian Holm, Ron Rifkin and, in particular, Peter Sarsgaard as Largeman's former best friend Mark. The only actor in danger of falling into a quirky stereotype is Natalie Portman as Sam, the requisite love interest. However, even when she is irritatingly perky it's easy to see why Largeman is drawn to her.

Throughout the first half of Garden State, Braff lets his actors express subtle moments of caring with scenes that don't require exposition to be heartfelt. Mark's mother (Jean Smart) kissing him goodbye after an argumentative morning says far more than the "I remember when…" speeches that fill the film's second half. Braff is a clever writer and has the knack for the bittersweet but there are far too many confessional scenes — those quiet moments of revelation that can drag a film down.

The trouble is that Braff tries too hard. He tries to say too much while being too surreal. Garden State reasserts the fact that the unknown doesn't have to be terrifying. Or that being scared isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's just a fact of life. He wants us to believe that life is bizarre and challenging if you "stay awake" for it and let it in. All very good points and told, for the most part, enjoyably. If only Braff was satisfied with a slice of life comedy rather than a feel good movie. It makes an interesting debut more Hollywood cookie cutter than necessary. (Fox Searchlight)

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