I have watched a lot of 2004 movies as rentals. There are only a few that I have been disappointed in missing seeing in the theatres. Garden State is one of those films. I usually don’t write reviews about films now unless they fall in one of two categories: Really bad or exceedingly good. Garden State falls into the latter and that is why I am compelled to write a review of the film.
Garden State may not be a perfect movie, but it is a wonderfully memorable one that features some memorable characters and moments. The story is a standard-fare coming-of-age story with a little romance thrown in.
The movie takes place in New Jersey, but from the way that it was shot, it could have been Any Town, USA. The setting really isn’t necessary for the story though, which follows Zach Braff’s character, Andrew Largeman. The movie opens in a quirky surreal way and we do not find out why until sometime into the second act. Largeman is an actor who lives in Los Angeles and his claim to fame is playing a retarded football player. He lives in a start white apartment and his medicine cabinet is full of pills. His mind is not in the right place and we see this when he pulls up to work (at a posh Vietnamese restaurant in Los Angeles) and the handle of a gas hose is hanging off his car. Largeman has just received news from his estranged father (Ian Holm) that his mother has passed away and asks Largeman to return to Jersey for the funeral.
When Largeman returns he finds his old friends and starts to blend back into the community. While at a hospital he meets Sam (Natalie Portman) who is a compulsive liar, but one that we start to like from the get go as she rants about how Largeman played a better retarded boy than an actual retarded actor. We see their relationship bloom and as we do, we find out about Largeman’s life – what happened in his past and why he lives in such a surreal world.
The movie is written and directed by Braff. It shows that Braff has a very promising career in filmmaking. The script is mature beyond his age (I liked the observation about leaving home and being home sick). The characters speak with conviction and sincerity. They are honest and the dialogue never feels forced. The acting is a bit stiff for most everyone except for Portman. Holm is particularly stiff in his acting, this can be attributed to the first time directing efforts of Braff, but it does not hurt the film much.
Braff is good in the film, but who really makes the film memorable is Portman. Though we never really find out much about her character outside of her mental state and why she wears a helmet, she makes the character of Sam so likable and believable that we grow attached to her. Peter Sarsgaard who plays Mark, one of Largeman’s friends also makes a commendable screen presence as a character that we struggle to figure out.
The ending to the film feels a little tacked on, as if it were added after initial test audiences walked away feeling not so happy. The current ending is a happy ending, but I can visualize the film being a bit better if it had ended just before the current ending. That is not a big deal, but it would have been a more satisfying ending had it ended just a tad earlier.
I give kudos to Braff for putting together such a wonderful and memorable film. As a first time writer and director, Braff has put together a film that shows just how much potential he has. I hope he continues to live up to this potential; I look forward to his future endeavors in Hollywood. Garden State is a movie worth watching because of its uniqueness in this boring world of Hollywood-shlock. Don’t Miss Garden State.