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Garden State /

Rated: R

Starring: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm, Peter Sarsgaard, Geoffrey Arend

Directed by: Zach Braff

Produced by: Gary Gilbert, Dan Halsted, Pamela Abdy, Richard Klubeck
Written by:
Zach Braff
Fox Searchlight Pictures


Natalie Portman and Zach Braff in Fox Searchlight's Garden State
Zach Braff in Fox Searchlight's Garden State
Peter Sarsgaard , Natalie Portman and Zach Braff in Fox Searchlight's Garden State

NOTE (12/31/2004): After a second viewing of Garden State, I have decided to bump the rating up to four buckets. The following is my original three-and-a-half bucket review:


     I’m not sure what the hell I’d call Garden State, besides effective. It’s certainly a one-of-a-kind motion picture, beautifully pacing itself with a poignant intrepidness, full of subtle quirks, but also deeply resonant and relatable material. The film’s opposition, which consists of a very small group of people, has argued that it is a forgettable, if enjoyable, piece. This could be true, but with such a unique experience, it’s hard to tell. Will I remember Garden State in five, ten, or even fifteen years? I don’t think I will be able to answer that question until time allows me to do so, definitely. While I wait it out, I’ll be able to savor this film’s touching richness, and allow it to consume my mind.

     The plot brings back memories of About Schmidt, which, I think, it is easily comparable to. In it, Zach Braff, who also stars on the television show, “Scrubs”, plays Andrew Largeman. He has an indifferent attitude towards his father (Ian Holm), a psychologist, who has had him on anti-depressants since the age of nine. Andrew has always received the blame for slapping his mother into a wheel chair. As a young boy, he allowed their flimsy dishwasher-door to fall open, and she slipped on it, and then cracked her neck and back on the sink directly above it. After his dad sent him to boarding school thinking that he did it intentionally, Andrew refused to ever talk to his parents.

     Now twenty-six, Andrew receives a call from home, and finds out that his mother has drowned in her bathtub. She could not push herself up out of the water because of her quadriplegia. He must return home to New Jersey, the Garden State, to attend her funeral, which he is surely to be assumed to be partly responsible for by family-members. There, Andrew meets up with his old buddy, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), and leads a very odd, adventurous couple of days. In the midst of dropping methamphetamine the night after the services and being led into an infamous room in which a hotel security guard uses to spy on hookers having sex the afternoon before he is scheduled to leave, Andrew also meets a special girl named Sam (Natalie Portman). This leads to an unconventional, and rather emotional, romance of sorts.

     This is Zach Braff’s first large venture into the world of filmmaking. As Andrew, he is certainly terrific, fully aware of the place he would like to take his character, but his direction and writing are far better than his performance. Behind the camera, he has a style that is concise, but also surprisingly fiery. Using the standard conventions of quick cuts and roaming shots, he turns regularity into something far more meaningful than anything in the average independent film. I was amazed at how much his vision developed the characters, even when the cast wasn’t doing much. When they are in action, though, discussing everything from grief to pop-culture (usually sarcastically), Garden State excels even farther. Maybe the dialogue will be lost in the sands of time, as some suggest, but I couldn’t care less, while watching it being spoken.

     Natalie Portman amazed me, here. I think I have finally come to believe all of the previous praise she has received to be justified. In Garden State, her character is a bit of a liar, she has a cleverly open, warm likeability. She’s not so much a deceptive person as she is an accommodating one, which is much of the reason why Andrew latches onto her so quickly. From their first encounter to their last, the audience wants for them to be together, much thanks to Portman. She’s charming and witty in the role, balancing humor and conviction, delicately. I actually think she makes Andrew even more sympathetic; their relationship shows us, in essence, the meaning of his life. The couple’s interaction is highlighted by the actress’ bubbly passion; I never wanted for her conversations with him to end.

     Without the superb ending, which offers a five-second-long, but amazing surprise nonetheless, I’m certain I would not like the motion picture as much as I did. I hear that Braff actually changed the outcome*, and the reason the suspense, which I would not even dream of spoiling, works so well was, in a sense, entirely lucky. The same could be said for Garden State, on the whole; all of its elements scream of failure but their superlative presentation will prove to be of a higher caliber than most viewers would ever expect. For all I know, this effort may be a fluke for Braff I’ve never seen an episode of “Scrubs” or any of the films he has had small parts in). But, a splendid movie is a splendid movie. That’s another term I can add to the list of unknowns to accurately refer to Garden State as. “Recommended” would be another. Perhaps I know more about it than I once thought I did.

*On his 'blog, Braff reports the ending choice was the original one. This has been a false assumption on the part of everyone. Perhaps he's a more confident writer/director than I thought he really was.

-Danny, Bucket Reviews (8.20.2004)

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