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With: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Jean Smart, Method Man
Written by: Zach Braff
Directed by: Zach Braff
MPAA Rating: R for language, drug use and a scene of sexuality
Running Time: 102
Date: 01/16/2004

Garden State (2004)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Young Quirks

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Zach Braff has the instincts of a great filmmaker but perhaps not thediscipline. He understands how to tell a story visually, with some kindof extraordinary setting or background in nearly every scene of hisdebut feature, Garden State, but he doesn't quite know when to holdback. The film goes on a bit long and succumbs to the cutes right at theend. Nevertheless, it's a wonderful arthouse find that leaves youfeeling good and warm and open to the world.

In addition to writing and directing, Braff (from TV's "Scrubs") plays Andrew Largeman, or "Large" for short, a struggling actor who has thus far landed only one role: a retarded quarterback in a TV movie of the week. When his mother dies, he goes back to his New Jersey hometown, a sad little place in which little changes. His small fame is enough to earn him a place of honor among his friends, who still live with their mothers, work at pathetic jobs and smoke too much pot.

Large himself has been on anti-depressants ever since before he can remember, due to a traumatic childhood event.

At home, Large tries and fails to relate to his father (Ian Holm) and hangs out with his friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who works as a gravedigger. He also meets the funky-cute Sam (Natalie Portman), who lets him listen to the Shins on her CD Walkman. He begins drifting through his days, alternating visits between these various friends, and quietly and amusedly absorbing their strange ways.

The most wonderful sequence comes when Mark takes Large and Sam on a long scavenger hunt, trading bits and pieces of contraband in exchange for information, all in an effort to obtain a going-away present for Large. They end up inside a small boat-shaped house perched on the edge of a giant chasm before they finally get the trinket.

Braff constantly invents new and amazing images for his film, such as the large, empty mansion one of his friends lives in (he's invented a noiseless Velcro) all the way down to the funny helmet Sam must wear when leaving the house (she suffers from spells). Almost every scene comes with some sweet surprise, something wonderful and memorable, even at the funeral of a family hamster.

Portman in particular gives the film the lift it needs; she perfectly counterbalances Braff's morose, drug-numbed blank slate with her energetic wit. In one scene, she does a little twist and makes a funny noise, claiming that no one had ever done that particular thing in that particular spot. She's so adorably unselfconscious that you just want to take her home.

And Sarsgaard -- who won the San Francisco Film Critics Circle award for Best Supporting Actor for Shattered Glass (2003) -- does one of his lovely slow reveals, in which he first appears to be a shallow, selfish twerp, but eventually uncovers a big heart and a clear personality.

It would be tough for even a master filmmaker, say someone as good as Wes Anderson, to sustain such a spell for the entire length of a film, so it's entirely understandable and forgivable that Braff drops the ball at the very end. He allows himself a couple of indie/Sundance moments, such as characters screaming as loud as they can into a chasm, or weepy goodbyes and farewell speeches. Unlike the slow reveals of the other characters, Braff's character suddenly comes alive at the end, and it's a bit of a stumble.

Braff the director holds back for one lucid moment, though. When Large says goodbye to his father -- whom he's successfully managed to avoid throughout the film -- Holm has such a touching moment of smallness that he reveals everything with only the tiniest effort.

Now that he's shown us his calling card, Braff's biggest challenge will be to come up with something even better. Judging from what we can see in Garden State, I'd say he can do it, and I look forward to it.

DVD Details: Looking at Garden State again on DVD, I was struck by how clever Braff was in putting the film together. He crafted a collection of striking images -- all easily assembled into a trailer -- and patched them together with clever writing. Only a Simon and Garfunkel song gives away his deliberate tribute to The Graduate. The bummer is that I'm not much of a fan of The Graduate, and I can only hope that Garden State ages better than its predecessor. Braff provides two commentary tracks on Fox's new DVD, one with co-star Natalie Portman and one with crew members. Additionally, we get outtakes & bloopers, deleted scenes and a making-of featurette. Strangely enough, the DVD does not come with the film's terrific trailer, into which Braff obviously put so much work.

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