In his big screen debut, writer/director/star Zach Braff (from NBCs Scrubs) puts the fun back in dysfunctional.
Andrew Largeman (Braff) is numb to the world. In the opening scene, we see Andrew (or Large, as his friends call him) sitting stony faced among screaming passengers as the plane they are on plummets. We soon realize that its only a dream, but, as Large is awakened by his father (Ian Holm) phoning him to tell him that his mother has died, we see that Large is emotionless in the face of real-life tragedy, as well.
Large lives an unfulfilling life in California in a barren apartment. He sits in traffic in his plain, white car to go to work in a Vietnamese restaurant where rich snobs boss him around. Hes so out of it that he arrives home to find that hes brought the gasoline nozzle home with him. Like most people in LA, Large is an aspiring actor, but his only real part has been a retarded quarterback in a made-for-TV movie. And like so many people in the modern world, he self-medicates to avoid the pain that life brings. When Large opens his medicine cabinet to reveal the dozens of prescription bottles, its a humorous image, but it could just as easily be a serious commentary on the over-medication of our society. Can swallowing pills really mend years of damage between a father and a son?
Ive heard from people who have taken psychopharmacological drugs that they, indeed, make the lows less low, but they can also make the highs less high. Its like how Californians dont appreciate the summer as New Englanders do because theyve never had to make it through a harsh winter. Thanks to all the drugs, Large isnt depressed anymore, but hes numb.
For his trip home to New Jersey, Large decides not to bring his medications along. As a result, we see him transform from an empty person into a full human being, who can experience a range of emotions. This premise is good in theory, but it bothered me a bit because, as a psychology major, I know that its very dangerous to suddenly stop taking ones medication, especially when its something as powerful as Lithium, one of the drugs that Large has been on for several years.
But I digress
Garden State is a perfect mixture of poignancy and hilarity, but, unfortunately, the serious moments didnt quite work for me. Luckily, Braff seems to have a knack for extremely odd humor, especially visual gags and quick dialogue, and these random jokes make the film worth seeing. Samantha (Natalie Portman), the films love interest, tells Large that she likes to do things that no one has ever done before. For many of the scenes, Braff takes this advice to heart. Alas, its easier to be creative in comic scenes than solemn ones, and I was disappointed by the father-son interactions and the ending.
Despite the heavy, cheesy premise, for the most part, Braff manages to avoid many of the common romantic comedy clichés. Sam and Large are one of the cutest couples Ive ever seen on screen. Sam is quirky but not annoying, and, sometimes, she actually speaks her mind, a rarity in Hollywood films. She really brings out the best in Large. Her small, warm, crowded house contrasts the Largemans giant, sterile one. Their dialogue feels very natural. I especially got a kick out of the scene when Large first visits Sams home, and she says to him, So, youre like really Jewish. Garden State is chock full of quotable lines, but it doesnt feel like its hitting you over the head with them like some comedies do.
Speaking of really Jewish, Jackie Hoffman ( Kissing Jessica Stein) steals a couple of opening scenes when offering up a horribly off-key version of Once, Twice, Three Time a Lady and forcing Andrew to try on the ugliest shirt ever. If an older Jewish relative presents you with an item of clothing as a gift, she will make you try it on immediately. I think it must be in the Torah or something.
Another hilarious character is Larges shady-but-sweet friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), an undertaker who smokes pot with his slutty mother (Jean Smart). Marks sidekick is the eccentric Jesse (Armando Riesco), who lives in a mansion thanks to inventing silent Velcro. Garden State is full of bizarre, random details that somehow seem realistic. Bored, middle class kids take drugs, steal, and self-destruct because theres nothing better to do, and they dont know what to do with their lives. In fact, it seems odd that this film is called Garden State because the story could have taken place in any state in the union.
While some of the characters are over-the-top, I admired the subtlety in the characters of Large and his father. Although they have been estranged from each other for many years, Braff doesnt make the viewer choose sides. Sir Holm does an admirable job with the New York Jewish inflection, but occasionally the British accent seeps through.
One of my movie going companions found the soundtrack annoying because he felt that Braff was trying to say that indie music will change your life. I, however, found the soundtrack unobtrusive and sweet. I especially liked the cover of Such Great Heights, and The Shins song that Sam makes Large listen to when they first meet is pretty cool. Theres even a bit of Simon and Garfunkel thrown in, which makes us think of another film about a lost, young man.
Many reviews of Garden State mention The Graduate, which is exceedingly high praise for Braffs first directorial effort. While I dont think that Garden State is that sort of masterpiece, it is certainly a period piece. Years later, people will look back at Garden State and say, Ah, yes, that was the Um I hope by then, someone will have come up with a decent name for this decade.
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age
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