"Garden State" is not just about New Jersey; it's about a state of mind. A jumbled state
induced by years and years of meds and pent up futility. Written and directed by Zach Braff,
better known in television circles as Dr. John Dorian from the hit comedy "Scrubs," the film
depicts the transformation of a dejected actor, Andrew Largeman, who returns to his hometown after
a nine-year leave of absence for his mother's funeral. While in the Garden State, Largeman begins
anew by discovering friendship and life without the influence of anti-depressants. With passivity
and subtlety, there doesn't appear to be much on the surface. But somewhere between the Prozac and
Zoloft is a comedy of intemerate charm.
Andrew Largeman is obviously depressed. His apartment is entirely white and sterile, his medicine
cabinet is full of prescription drugs, and his job at a local Vietnamese eatery is monotonous at best.
An aspiring actor best known for playing a retarded quarterback in a made for television movie, Largeman
lives in Los Angeles, many miles from his Garden State home town. In fact, it was 9 years ago that he
first moved to California. And he hasn't spoken a word to his parents since. At least, until now.
While lying in a catatonic state, his answering machine picks up a message from his father telling him
that his mother has just passed away.
Needing an escape, Largeman packs everything but his medication and heads back east. At his
mother's funeral, he stands alone and emotionless, while his father secretly blames him for
her death. Oddly enough, two of his high school buddies appear at the funeral. They are
gravediggers ready to bury his mother. It's a macabre sight for sure, but one that propels
Largeman on a soul searching mission, reconnecting with friends he's left behind and
discovering new ones along the way. Of most importance, he bumps into Samantha, a
pathological liar with a heart of gold. Samantha is a free spirit who breathes life back
into Largeman, encouraging him to open his heart and release the good and bad emotions that
have plagued him since he was a child.
Based in part on Zach Braff's childhood in South Orange, "Garden State" is a unique and unconventional
homage to small town life in New Jersey. Full of rich characters and a wealth of imagination, the film
finds humor in bizarre characterizations, i.e. Largeman forgetting to remove the gas pump from his car,
a doctor with one too many degrees and not enough wall space, Samantha forgetting to remove the wheel in
her hamster's cage, or a family that explores the depths of a large chasm while living in an ark. Each
comedic moment is perfectly captured, perfectly set up, and delivered in perfect deadpan fashion. And it
should come as no surprise. After observing many talented directors on the set of "Scrubs," Braff finds
a way to expand his own comedic style by employing some of the knowledge gained.
Part of what makes the timing so perfect is a complete respect for characterization. In the
film, Braff easily distinguishes his characters by their traits and circumstances. Largeman
is overmedicated, Sam is a liar, Sam's brother is an exchange student, Mark is a stoner,
Mark's brother is a fast food knight, etc. In other words, for every trait, there is a
situation that begs for comedy. And Braff takes full advantage, with visual playfulness.
Just watch Largeman's reaction while displaying a hand made shirt comprised of bedroom
fabric. And you'll see - it's the dilemma, not the flaw, which makes us laugh.
Certainly, a lot can be said for a filmmaker who writes, directs, and stars in his own motion
picture. But with all of that responsibility, it's quite possible to lose focus every now and
then. And here, it's the plot that lacks attention. Shuffling and circling in different
directions, the main story arc eventually settles into a wild goose chase before relinquishing
its main characters and allowing them a reprieve. It's as if the only intent midway through is
to showcase more oddities and situations than the grotesque characters found in "North Fork." Do
any of these pit stops, from the home appliance store to the peeping tom hotel to the infinite
abyss, offer the characters an opportunity to grow or move forward? Perhaps there's one. But
for the most part, the pointless meandering procrastinates in much the same way as Largeman does
with his father.
While the film does a solid job of developing its characters, it only skims the surface in
regard to their involvement. Says Largeman's friend Mark: "I'm okay with being unimpressive. I
sleep better." Unimpressive, unmotivated, and uninvolved, many of Largeman's friends float
through life without worry. Playing spin the bottle, popping ecstasy, smoking pot, and taking
late night swims. They're the perfect companions for Largeman's depression and following their
daily activities might put us right back into an uneventful stupor. But how engaging is that?
Fortunately, there's Samantha, a character who reveals very little about herself, yet stands
out because of her spirit. Written specifically for Natalie Portman, Sam is a pathological
liar with a conscience. In other words, after telling a lie, she is overwhelmed with guilt
and eventually must tell the truth. But it's not her idiosyncrasies that stand out as much
as her smile. Adding the right warmth and vivacity to the role, Portman creates a lovable
character that offsets the gloom and pessimism of the supporting cast. And it is her
character that you want to reach out to. While sitting on the stairs at the airport, she
turns away from Largeman and begins to cry. Not one of those artificial ones. The kind
where the cheeriness fades and the bitter reality takes over. It's one of Portman's finest
"Garden State" is a quiet romantic comedy that finds its rhythm by capturing dysfunction.
And it's a testament to Braff's skill as a first time director, being able to highlight those
subtle quirks of situational comedy that make us laugh. Even though the film occasionally
sputters in different directions and involves many inactive characters, it still manages to
flip despair into assurance. Says Samantha: "I know it hurts. But it's life, and it's
real...and it's pretty much all we got." With modest charm, low-key humor, and a
heartwarming performance from Natalie Portman, you'll find plenty of original moments to keep
you in a pleasant New Jersey state of mind.