‘Garden State’ renews belief in good movies
August 18, 2004
Once in a great while a movie comes along from out of nowhere that salvages your belief that motion pictures with believable characters and a story everyone can relate to do and can exist out there.
“Garden State” is that movie. It’s a gem of a motion picture with a cast of characters that will leave you wanting more. I’m not talking sequel either. No. This is such a good movie that I didn’t want it to end. In fact, I wanted to stay in the theater and watch all of the characters’ lives unfold before me. I am still amazed that this marks the debut feature for writer, director and star Zach Braff, who is probably best known for his TV series “Scrubs.”
Braff shows a true flair for the craft in this movie. His understanding of his characters (quirks and all), coupled with a genuine story about the coming of age within each character … well, it just rings real and true, never pandering with cheap shots and forced humor and sentimentality. Not since “The Graduate” or “Summer of ’42” have I seen a movie that captures the subject matter so convincingly.
In “Garden State” Braff plays Andrew Largeman, a fledgling West Coast actor who has appeared in one made-for-TV movie with moderate success. His profession allows a somewhat retarded state of adolescence, as does the prescription meds he has been consuming. He returns home to New Jersey in order to attend the funeral of his mother after a nine-year absence from his estranged family.
Some of us never seem to grow up, or we try to delay the responsibility that comes with being an adult. Man, how I hate it when a movie seems to parallel your own existence. Ouch. We all have our defining moments, and Andrew is about to find his in his home state, the garden state.
Andrew reconnects with old friends and realizes they, too, haven’t “discovered” themselves. I think that Andrew finds a twisted sense of comfort knowing that they haven’t changed that much, either, even after a decade of separation from them. Granted, some of his old buds have made some in-roads financially and therefore have it easier than others.
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Jesse (Armando Riesco) got rich off of an invention that he patented for silent Velcro, but has nothing to do to fill his days. At the other end of the spectrum is Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a gravedigger who supplements his income by robbing jewelry from corpses and ripping off department stores when he can. There are others worthy of therapy here, so Andrew is in good company.
In one of her best roles to date, Natalie Portman plays Sam, an epileptic filled with vigor and spunk whom Andrew meets while waiting in a neurologist’s waiting room. Talk about a dream role for Portman. She’s both funny one moment – talking nonstop – and then she’s a pathological liar and blurts out everything she’s thinking. Credit goes to Braff, wearing his writer hat, for allowing Portman to improvise many of her lines, and it becomes obvious she has so much fun playing the part. Things heat up later between the two, but I like that the movie takes its time on the subject – a true friendship gets to develop first.
It’s at this point that I realized this movie is going to get phenomenal word-of-mouth. It has mass appeal, going from one emotion to another without ever becoming schmaltzy.
All this and it takes place in New Jersey? Well, considering that Zach Braff based his first movie in part from his own childhood growing up in the garden state, it makes perfect sense.