Garden State (USA; 109 min.)

directed by: Zach Braff
starring: Zach Braff; Natalie Portman; Peter Sarsgaard
Garden State

Bruce says: "In 1997, Elizabeth Wurtzel grabbed the country’s attention by declaring we were a Prozac Nation. Prozac is just one of many drugs generously distributed by doctors to fight depression. In GARDEN STATE, Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff), now 26, has been living on antidepressants since he was 9 years old. While Andrew has not taken Prozac it is clear that his psychiatrist has, at minimum, prescribed Lithium, Paxil and Zoloft to 'keep him functional' over the years. Many patients truly need antidepressants but others are taking them as a substitute for something else. Andrew is in the latter group. What Andrew needs – craves, actually – is a good hug, plain old-fashioned physical contact.

"GARDEN STATE is a small film with a big heart and an odd-ball view of the world. It is crammed full with eccentricities. The exceptional cinematography and the first time writer/director’s whimsy combine nicely to produce a film more seasoned directors would be proud to call their own. You may be familiar with Braff from watching Scrubs. Braff looks like a cross between Ron Reagan (jr.) and Ray Romano. He is an engaging actor, albeit one with a vulnerable air about him. While some think Natalie Portman is the star of the show, I think that Braff himself is what really makes GARDEN STATE such a delight.

"Andrew is a working actor in Hollywood; he works as a waiter and goes to auditions peddling his resume which lists his playing a retarded football player on a TV series. His father calls to tell him his mother has drowned in the bathtub and off Andrew goes, back to New Jersey for the funeral. In his rush to the airport Andrew forgets his medication. At the cemetery his aunt warbles 'Three Times a Lady;' later she gives Andrew a present of a shirt made of leftover fabric his mother used to redecorate the bathroom just before she died. When he puts the shirt on, he blends right into the walls. Andrew lingers about after everyone leaves the cemetery and runs into two of his old friends which are now gravediggers. Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) invites him to a party at the house of another old friend who has struck it rich by inventing 'silent Velcro,' two Velcro strips that make no noise when ripped apart.

"When his father says, 'I want us to be happy again,' Andrew asks, 'When was this time when we all were happy?' Andrew remembers his mother as a chronically depressed woman and his father a workaholic with no interest in family life. On the way to the party, Andrew gets picked up for speeding by a cop who happens to be another old friend, last seen 'doing lines of coke off the top of a urinal.' Another old friend who now works at the Handi-Mart greets Andrew with, 'I thought you killed yourself.' One rapidly gets the picture of what Andrew’s life was like before he left home.

"When Andrew complains of second split second headaches, his father (Ian Holm) sends him off to a specialist. In the waiting room Andrew meets Sam (Natalie Portman) whose curious nature and attractive demeanor override the fact she is a habitual liar. She recognizes him as the retarded football player from TV. Adding another idiosyncratic touch, in the doctor’s office there are so many diplomas that one has overflowed onto the ceiling. After Andrew is finished with the doctor, Sam is waiting for him outside. He gives her a ride home and they bond while burying her hamster in the back yard. Andrew, without drugs for the first time in seventeen years, tries to open up and express his feelings. Sam makes a concerted effort to stick to the truth.

"A small road trip that Andrew, Mark and Sam take fills up a lot of the film’s second half. For the first time in his life Andrew begins to have a sense of family. Before he came back to the Garden State, Andrew felt that 'family is just a group of people who miss the same imaginary place.' In four short days, Andrew learns a lot about happiness and can say quite naturally 'When I’m with you, I feel like I’m home.' 4 cats"

Chris says: "Zach Braff rightfully observed that there were few intelligent, realistic films addressed to his generation, so he attempted one. This directorial debut, which he also wrote and stars in, follows alter-ego Andrew Largeman as he returns home to suburban New Jersey to attend his mother's funeral. A struggling LA actor, he left town years before and has been medicated on lithium and various other drugs since he was 9 (as an experiment, returns home without them).

"Between avoiding a reconciliation with his father (an underused Ian Holm) and apathetically hanging out with his townie friends (most notably Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), now a gravedigger), he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), an eccentric, talkative young woman who immediately befriends him (and kept reminding me of Kate Winslet from ETERNAL SUNSHINE..., only not as extreme.)

'Even without his meds, Largeman floats through his hometown as a passive observer, his disposition in check with the film's gently quirky, occasionally surreal humor. Sam is obviously the catalyst that gradually awakens him, but to Braff's credit, the film isn't always that simplistic or schematic. Details about Largeman's past surface credibly and thoughtfully, and the script takes a few unique, unforeseen turns. In its best moments, GARDEN STATE revives/emulates the socially aware spirit of New Hollywood films of the late '60s / early '70s. Sarsgaard gives a nicely muted performance and I think this is the first time I've ever appreciated Portman: she nearly makes an annoying, difficult character likable.

"Still, Braff wants to be idiosyncratic and personable while reaching the widest audience possible. There are some deftly written scenes (like Largeman and Sam's conversation that occurs in a bathtub), but also others that point towards an unfortunate, strained happy ending. This is obviously a heartfelt project for Braff: I admire the humaneness with which he draws this portrait, especially when it observes rather than speaks for a generation (which happens to be mine.) Worth seeing, but at times it could've used a director with a lighter, more experienced touch. 3 or 3.5 cats... I'm still debating."

Janet says: "Not sure what this moderately entertaining film adds up to. It seems to
want to be a Wes Anderson/NAPOLEON DYNAMITE-type thing (cool and unemotional with lots of random images and odd behavior all working toward some kind of disaffected hipness) but ends up being---let's face it---a Robert McKee type 'journey of healing.' Said journey comes complete, by the end, with a DOOR IN THE FLOOR-style end-of-film revelation and big, heartfelt speeches addressed by the main character to both his cold father and his new love. Should the writer/director have to choose, perhaps?

"Perf notes: Loved the performance of Peter Sarsgaard (again!), although his character is repellent (again!), and have realized I'm a huge fan of Jackie Hoffman. Her song in the movie is my this year's 'Llorando.' (Diane---get her for my funeral?) I'm quite sure I singled her out in KISSING JESSICA STEIN as well, and may even have tried to nom her. May have to see A DIRTY SHAME tonight for the joy of experiencing her again. Natalie Portman was too actressy, I thought, but isn't it nice to know that Annie Hall lives? Boy, were they lucky to get Ian Holm.

"When measured against my current yardstick, MARIA FULL OF GRACE, this film gets 3 cats.