Garden State [DVD]
Director : Zack Braff
Screenplay : Zack Braff
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Zach Braff (Andrew Largeman), Natalie Portman (Sam), Peter Sarsgaard (Mark), Ian Holm (Gideon Largeman), Ann Dowd (Olivia), Dennis O'Hare (Albert), Michael Weston (Kenny), Alex Burns (Dave), Jackie Hoffman (Aunt Sylvia Largeman), Ron Leibman (Dr. Cohen), Method Man (Diego)
Zack Braff looks like an ordinary guy, which is intrinsic to his appeal. As J.D., the central character of the often-surreal TV hospital comedy Scrubs, he has grounded himself as an identifiable everyguy who spends much of his life, like many of us do, confounded by the world around him and just trying to keep his head above water.
At the beginning of Garden State, an offbeat, genuinely moving dramedy that is Braff's triple-threat feature debut, his character, Andrew Largeman, is a zombified version of J.D. Living in a sterile white apartment in Los Angeles and waiting tables at a trendy Vietnamese restaurant while he tries to score another acting gig (his one big break was playing a retarded quarterback in a made-for-TV movie), Andrew is stuck in a perpetual state of nothingness, thanks largely to the endless doses of medication that save him from the highs and lows of life. He is trapped in a rut of medically induced unfeeling, and Braff conveys the pain of this behind a placid mask.
One morning, Andrew gets a call from his estranged father (Ian Holm) that his paraplegic mother has drowned in the bathtub. Andrew leaves his medications behind and dutifully gets on a plane and crosses the country to return to his home in New Jersey, a place he has not been in nine years, ever since he graduated from high school. There is a pained, awkward distance between Andrew and his father, a psychiatrist who is responsible for Andrew having lived most of his life in a lithium haze. The casting of Ian Holm was a small stroke of genius, not only because he brings a believable level of severity to his portrayal of Andrew's father, but because he is such the physical opposite of Braff, thus making visual the seemingly uncrossable emotional divide between them.
Andrew ends up spending most of his time with his old high school buddies, who he hasn't seen since he left for the West Coast, particularly Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who digs graves for a living and spends most of his time getting high and trying to forget his lowly place in life. In fact, most of Andrew's old friends don't seem to have progressed much since their teenage years. The only success is Albert (Dennis O'Hare), who made millions on a fluke invention (silent Velcro) and has since bought an enormous mansion that has no furniture, the emptiness of the enormous rooms reflecting his empty, aimless days.
Andrew finds a ray of hope in a chance meeting with a girl named Sam (Natalie Portman), who is one of those precious creatures that probably only exist in movies. Nevertheless, Portman turns in a beautiful performance that makes Sam's tics and quirks not only human and believable, but incredibly attractive; she may be the first actress to make pathological lying look cute. Simply put, she's an utterly loveable character, inside and out, and it's easy to see why Andrew would fall for her in such a short period of time. She represents all the freedom of feeling that he's been denied for so long; his blank-faced passivity in the face of his troubled life is the polar opposite of her open, smiling demeanor. The distance between them is suggested in parallel funeral scenes, the first being for Andrew's mother and the second being for Sam's recently deceased pet hamster. Andrew cannot even bring himself to cry at his own mother's burial, yet Sam is able to made a speech about a rodent that is amazingly moving. The depth of her heart is exactly what Andrew needs to sink into, and his being freed from his medications allows him to make that step.
At this point, it might sound like Garden State is a somber drama. It isn't, although it deals quite genuinely with a lot of heavy issues related to Andrew's belated coming of age. Braff is a gifted comic writer who is also a surprisingly acute visualist; Garden State is both funny and moving, and it's also attractive to look at. Braff grew up in New Jersey, and he shows an innate sense of how to use locations to suggest emotion, starting with the obviousness of that spare white apartment Andrew inhabits at the beginning of the film. Similarly, the enormous house in which his father lives is modern and beautiful, but cold and uninviting. On the other hand, Sam's house, where she lives with her slightly offbeat mother and adopted African brother, is cluttered and outdated, but warm and inviting. The Jersey locations are often bleak on the surface, but Braff brings out the worn history beneath, suggesting places that have been truly lived in and thus tremble with memories. He also stages some of the film's most heartfelt moments in unexpected places, such the one in which Andrew and Sam pour their hearts out to each other while sitting together fully clothed in a bathtub.
Braff's visual acuity helps him manage the balance between comedy and drama, which also requires that he walk the fine line of keeping the story's central focus on Andrew's emergence from his shell while simultaneously diverging and meandering down offbeat paths that are only tangentially related. The film is full of quirky little moments that stand out, but aren't so cute in their wink-wink cleverness that they detract from the film's heartfelt emotionalism. Braff is funny and sometimes ironic, but he's never cynical, and that's what makes the film work. It's the kind of story that makes you feel good without feeling bad about feeling good, like you've been manipulated or cheated.
Although the pain of familial discord is the thematic trope that cuts through Garden State's heart, Andrew's coming home after so many years is perfectly in line with the film's ultimately hopeful outlook on life. It is summarized quite nicely in a moment in a pool when Andrew is talking to Sam about how he left his home behind and it doesn't feel like home anymore. This clearly contrasts Sam's homelife, which is a bit odd, but utterly homey and welcoming, the kind of place where you don't have to put on pretensions or walk on eggshells. Andrew realizes that that is exactly what he has been missing for the past decade-something to call home. And, even though not everything gets tied up neatly with his father, he does find that thing to call home in Sam, which makes their relationship so much more than just a standard movie romance. It is, in its own way, salvation.
|Garden State DVD|
|Subtitles||English, Spanish, French|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Video|
|Release Date||December 28, 2004|
|The anamorphic widescreen transfer is excellent. Zach Braff's moody compositions are nicely framed and the film's subdued color palette is well reproduced. There is a good sense of detail even though much of the cinematography is slightly soft, and black levels are spot on.|
|Musically, Garden State has one of the best soundtracks in recent memory, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track does a great job of presenting it. While much of the film's soundtrack is dialogue-driven and therefore resricted to the front soundstage, the surround speakers open it up nicely for the film's alternative pop songs.|
|There are two audio commentaries on this disc. The first, by writer/director/actor Zach Braff and costar Natalie Portman, is laid back and amusing, albeit not always terribly informative. Braff and Portman are clearly good friends with an easy rapport, which makes the track fun to listen to. The second audio commentary, with Braff, director of photography Lawrence Sher, editor Myron Kerstein, and production designer Judy Becker, is more informative about the production of the film. The 27-minute making-of featurette is fairly standard run-of-the-mill type stuff, and information from it was covered better in one of the two commentaries. The 16 deleted scenes with optional commentary are definitely worth watching; most of them are simply extensions of scenes already in the film, but they provide a nice portrait of just how ambitious Braff was in his storytelling. Also included is a blooper reel with three minutes of outtakes. I was disappointed, though, that the original theatrical trailer, featuring Frou Frou's “Let Go,” wasn't included. What gives? That was one of the best trailers I saw last year, and surely it can't be because of music rights issues since the song also appears in the film.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Fox Searchlight Pictures