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July 2004

By Julian Roman

Garden State

Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Director: Zach Braff
Producers: Pamela Abdy, Gary Gilbert, Dan Halsted, Richard Klubeck
Screenwriter: Zach Braff
Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher
Composer: Chad Fisher
Cast: Zach Braff, Ian Holm, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ron Liebman, Method Man, Jean Smart



Garden State is the feature directing and writing debut of Zach Braff, the actor that portrays J.D. in the popular sitcom Scrubs. It's a pretty solid effort for a first film. Braff delivers a quirky comedy that tries a little too hard to be dramatic. It falls apart in the third act, but is entertaining up to that point. The ensemble cast is first rate and saves the film from being too obscure. Natalie Portman (Star Wars) and the always great Peter Sarsgaard (Boys Don't Cry, Shattered Glass) notch another fine performance in their repertoire. They breathe life into Braff's script, excellently portraying their characters and adding believability to absurd situations.

Braff stars as Andrew Largeman, an out-of-work Los Angeles actor immersed in a daily regiment of anti-depressants. His mother drowns in the tub and he's forced to go back home to New Jersey (a.k.a. The Garden State) for the funeral. His trip proves to be eventful. Largeman has been having severe headaches. His psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) sends him to a brain specialist where he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), an epileptic compulsive liar. The two become an item and embark on a strange odyssey of discovery with Largeman's oddball friends. Especially Mark, Peter Sarsgaard, a high school buddy that works at the local Jewish cemetery and steals jewelry off the corpses.

Garden State is filled with sight gags; which means the settings are made ridiculous for comic relief. There's a scene in particular where one of Largeman's relatives makes him a shirt from his mother's favorite pattern. Largeman wears it at the wake and ends up matching the wallpaper. I thought this was funny as hell, but others might not. This is indicative of the dry humor used in the film. There are a lot of laughs, but it's more cerebral. Don't expect any slapstick comedy here.

Zach Braff and Natalie Portman have good screen chemistry until the ending. Then the film succumbs to melodrama and it kills the eccentric vibe it had worked so hard to build. This is unfortunate because the beginning was so clever. Many first-time filmmakers fall into this trap. They have a wonderful, light-hearted story going and muck it up by being unnecessarily dramatic. It's almost as if they need a sappy ending to justify the film. This is not the case and it keeps Garden State from being much better.

The soundtrack is exceptional. Braff scores the film with his favorite songs and it really contributes to the mood. I believe the soundtrack will be a hit, regardless of how the movie does. It reminds me of the music from Ted Demme's Beautiful Girls. Every song fits so perfectly into the scene it accompanies. There's an emphasis on the rock group, The Shins. Their song, Caring is Creepy, plays in the pivotal scene where Largeman and Sam first meet.

Garden State has its moments and is worth a trip to the movies. It's the kind of film where you lose yourself in the possibility of randomly meeting Natalie Portman and falling in love. Movies are about fantasy and that is one that I don't mind having.