Garden State (2004) / Comedy-Romance

MPAA Rated: R for language, drug use, and sexuality
Running Time: 109 min.

Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Armando Riesco, Jackie Hoffman, Jim Parsons, Jayne Houdyshell, Jean Smart, Ron Leibman, Ann Dowd, Method Man
Director: Zach Braff
Screenplay: Zach Braff
Review published November 10, 2004

Struggling actor Andrew Largeman (Braff, from TV's "Scrubs") returns to his birthplace of New Jersey to attend the funeral of his long-suffering mother, who was left mostly paralyzed after an accident occurred which Andrew felt himself responsible for.  When Andrew had left his hometown, he never looked back, not keeping in touch with almost anyone for over nine years.  Suffering from depression and self-doubt, for which he has been highly medicated for years, Andrew's feelings open up for the first time since as long as he can remember, now that he is surrounded by old and new friends, and can see the family with the flaws they've always had.  Through the help of a rambunctious young woman (Portman, Closer) who take a fancy to him, Andrew starts to discover the one thing that has eluded him all this time -- himself.

Garden State is an impressive debut from actor and first-time writer/director Zach Braff, who tosses up an ambitious dramedy, and succeeds with some very strong high points.  I's a very quirky endeavor, kind of a serious version of Napoleon Dynamite, with eccentric characters, funny situations, and an overall atmosphere of a world bizarre.  On occasion, Braff tries a bit too hard to be clever, which gives the film a somewhat uneven tone from time to time, as it veers from sight gag comedy to serious family drama with only the most tenuous of segues to connect them.  Braff even goes for a romance within the confines of the story, and while Portman does make it feel convincing, one gets the feeling that the film just might have been better served limiting itself to just one or two genres.

To some extent, Garden State gave me a similar feeling to the first time I had seen Say Anything, except that the entire town exhibits the Lloyd Dobler offbeat personality, instead of just the protagonist, who seems to be the most normal of the bunch.  Both films are also bolstered by terrific soundtracks, which give the semblance of depth and meaning, even though Braff's film frequently enhances these moments with camera techniques to evoke a sense of downbeat, somber reflection.  It does work, but a little more subtlety would have been prudent, as the film does encroach into music video territory from time to time.  Still, it's definitely nice music selection, and Braff always chooses the right song at the right time.  Any different, and it might have been a lesser movie.

Garden State is far from perfect, but the things that do work exceed any excesses in Braff's tendency to overreach in trying to inject heavy-handed pathos into his silly comedy.  A little less angst would go a long way, but for viewers who tend to attribute meaning though mood over substance, you will probably come away thinking this to be a deeper experience than is warranted.  Still, it is original and perversely clever at times, and in the world of romantic comedies, if you can call this one, that alone puts it head and shoulders above almost all of them.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo