Garden State (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Garden State is one of those movies that fails to stay with the viewer for an extended period of time. It's a forgettable film featuring a throw-away story with unmemorable characters and unremarkable performances. That's not to say it's bad, because that would be an unfair description. But it's hard to figure out why this movie caused such a stir at Sundance. It's a generic story about how a 20-something loser returns to his roots, makes peace with his inner demons, and finds himself and love at the same time. Tell me we've never seen that story beforeā€¦

Writer/director/star Zach Braff doesn't feel comfortable telling this story "straight," so he incorporates a lot of quirky "comedy." This is one of the film's downfalls, because much of the humor doesn't work. It feels contrived and scripted. Garden State contains some excellent character-driven moments, but their effectiveness is counterbalanced by scenes in which the protagonists do things that only a writer's construct would attempt.

Andrew Largeman (Braff) is one of those many would-be actors who has moved to Los Angeles to become a waiter. With the exception of an appearance on a television show as a "retarded quarterback," his acting career has remained in low-gear. He lives in a one-room apartment, has no social life, and takes enough prescription drugs to remain in a semi-comatose state. One morning he gets a call from his father, Gideon (Ian Holm), from New Jersey. His mother has died and he has to return for the funeral. Once there, although he doesn't manage to break down the walls separating him from his dad, he re-connects with an old friend, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), and meets the flaky-but-likeable Sam (Natalie Portman) in the waiting room of a neurologist.

Despite having assembled a strong cast, Braff doesn't elicit any standout performances. Ian Holm is probably the strongest, but he is aided by the script, which doesn't give his character any "cute" eccentricities and doesn't expect him to participate in any of the comedy. So he can play Gideon straight as a gruff, emotionally distant father. In the lead, Braff is lackluster. Admittedly, it can be difficult to connect with a character who is so dissociated, but Braff clearly wants us to like Andrew, and it doesn't happen. Natalie Portman's work is uneven. She is effective when Sam is toned-down, but when the character's personality quirks come to the fore, it's evident that she's acting ("forcing it" is probably the most apt descriptor). Finally, there's Peter Sarsgaard, who doesn't have much to do outside of the typical "best friend" stuff.

There's a problem with the title. Although New Jersey bears the official nickname of "The Garden State," and the film mostly transpires in New Jersey, there's no sense of place. Garden State could just as easily be taking place in the middle of Nebraska. In fact, the location is so generic that, despite having lived in New Jersey for most of my life, I couldn't confirm or deny whether any of it was actually filmed here. Love it or hate it, at least "The Sopranos" offers viewers a good sense of where it's transpiring. Not so with Garden State. Should that be a problem? Ordinarily no, which is why the title is a mistake.

The film contains its share of winning moments, many of which highlight predominantly non-verbal exchanges. One is the first meeting between Andrew and Sam, which features some gazing before there's any spoken interaction. The other is a wonderfully rendered, semi-romantic moment in front of a fireplace, where Sam does an impromptu tap dance. I also liked the scene inside the ark, although that entire sequence pushed obvious quirkiness a little too far.

There are problems with the ending. The last scene in particular appears out of place, almost as if it was tacked on at a later date to provide a better sense of closure. It's fair to assign partial blame for this to the editor, who hasn't shown great aptitude in cutting the rest of the movie. Many of the transitions are murky or jarring. Often, Garden State doesn't flow smoothly.

I will give credit to Braff, who, by writing, directing, and starring, has accomplished a Herculean task. If the film falls down in places, that's an understandable problem from a first time filmmaker who elected to wear three hats. There's enough promise in Garden State to hint at better things to come. Until then, this movie represents an uneven glimpse of possibilities. The film is pleasant, but its success at Sundance probably says more about the festival and its attendees than it does about the actual production. As long as you go into Garden State with reasonable expectations, its capacity to disappoint will be limited.

Garden State (United States, 2004)

Director: Zach Braff
Cast: Zach Braff, Ian Holm, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ron Liebman, Method Man, Jean Smart
Screenplay: Zach Braff
Cinematography: Lawrence Sher
Music: Chad Fisher
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2004-07-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1