Garden State

August, 2004, Comedy

Directed by:Zach Braff

Starring:Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie Hoffman, and Ian Holm

The face that stares out from the screen in the opening scenes of this new comedic drama may look vaguely familiar; it belongs to Zach Braff, the long-faced actor who plays Dr. "D.J." Dorin on the television series "Scrubs". Braff works both sides of the camera in this meandering study of 20-something angst set in the Jersey suburbs of The Big Apple. Working from his own script, this first-time director proves he's a real triple threat, using shrewd observation and a mordant wit to examine the lives of middle class kids who've failed to meet their parents' mainstream expectations. While the movie's final reel suffers from an unfortunate dose of self-importance, there's enough humor and bite here to make for a thoroughly enjoyable summer film. Best of all, it features a shimmering performance by young Natalie Portman that worth the price of admission all by itself.

Barff plays Andrew Largeman, called home from a dead-end acting career in Hollywood to attend the funeral of his wheelchair-bound mother. Estranged from both his parents for reasons that are explained late in the picture, "Large" reconnects with his old school buddies submerging himself in alcohol and drug-induced numbness with Mark, (Peter Sarsgaard) who works as a gravedigger at the cemetery where Mrs. Largeman's been buried. (Mark supplements his income as a gravedigger by helping himself to jewelry that's been left in coffins after mourners depart, a moonlighting avocation that bears rather too heavily on the plot's resolution).

Since our hero's recreational drug use supplements a barrage of anti-depressants prescribed by his physician father, (Ian Holm) it's not surprising to find Large consulting a neurologist to find the source of blinding headaches which have begun to put a damper on his already fragile state of mind. While there, he meets "Sam", (Natalie Portman) a legal assistant who's immediately drawn to Largeman's sardonic sense of humor and diffident style. A romance quickly develops, forcing Largeman to confront his manipulative father and finally deal with what responsibility he might bear for his mother's condition before her death. 

If the resolution of those soap opera issues burdens Garden State with a weight it's ultimately incapable of bearing, the sharply observed portraits of Large's "looser" friends enliven the action more effectively than any other comedy to come out this year; a thick-headed cop, an amusement park employee who's become the boy-toy of Mark's mother and the geeky inventor of "soundless Velcro" each get their moments of inspired lunacy here, providing a welcome relief from Largeman's generally downbeat demeanor. Only the sullen Mark hints at the real cost these layabouts bear for lives that have drifted far off course too early in life.

But it's Natalie Portman's Samantha that not only rescues Largeman in the end, but the movie in the bargain. Impish, motor-mouthed and touchingly vulnerable, she radiates a seductive ebullience from her first meeting with Large in the doctor's office and then manages to steal the affections of the film's remaining characters--and the audience--as well. Portman, an Israeli actress who first came to the attention of American audiences in Michael Mann's Heat in 1995, has since been largely relegated to highly visible mediocrity in the second stage of George Lucas's Star Wars saga. Her performance as an embittered Confederate War widow in Cold Mountain provided the only memorable moments in that otherwise lackluster effort; her appearance here as a lighter-than-air romantic heroine suggests that her range as an actress may match her pixie-ish good looks.

As Mark, Peter Sarsgaard delivers yet another of his patented performances as a man seething with often unfocused fury; with 16 screen roles to his credit in the last eight years, (4 in 2002 alone) and another handful of parts in movies scheduled to be released during the next 18 months, this superb character actor may become as ubiquitous as Harvey Keitel was a decade ago.

Given the seasoned appearances of the three leads and the sophistication of both script and production values, it's important to note how young, (by Hollywood standards) these principals are: Braff just turned 29, Sarsgaard is barely 33, Portman a decade younger. That's good news; based on their work in Garden State, audiences can look forward to seeing a great deal more of them.   


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