Garden State is a well-meaning film starring, written and directed by Scrubs star Zach Braff. It, partially biographical, contains not so much a story as a mood — an awakening of its lead character after years of a constantly numb feeling. It’s a movie that’s going to be relatable to anyone who has felt that way at one point in time, which is the majority of the audience. It’s been taken to hyperbolic extremes in this case to make a point: Stop waiting for something to happen; go out and make it happen.
When we meet out lead, Andrew (Braff) he’s doing absolutely nothing with his life. He can’t even be bothered to answer the telephone. His father (Ian Holm) calls him to let him know that his mother has passed away. She drowned in the bathtub, if you must know. Andrew, a struggling actor in Los Angeles, now has to return to his hometown and finally put to rest all of the issues that have haunted him throughout his life, which include an accident involving his deceased mother and an overprotective psychiatrist father, who has drowned him in lithium pills since a very young age.
So, yes, Andrew leaves his medication behind in L.A. and decides to take the entire experience with a clear head. He rekindles old friendships — the most notable of which is with Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who spends a lot of the film hanging out with him — and meets new people, like Sam (Natalie Portman), the love interest and compulsive liar. She says lying is like a tic to her; she doesn’t even know why she does it. Regardless, she and Andrew become very, very fast friends, even though Andrew is only in town for a couple of days.
We spend most of Garden State going from location to location, and talking. This works in the film’s favor, and is in no way, shape, or form a criticism. Watching interesting characters converse with one another can be one of the joys of the cinema. With a film like this one, an overarching plot isn’t really necessary. Watching these twentysomethings explore and work things out is enjoyable in and of itself.
This all works because the movie has something to say, because the characters are interesting enough to carry the film, and because Zach Braff absolutely kills it in the director’s chair. All of these elements come together to make a very modest, yet charming, production that is absolutely worth watching. I can see it resonating with a lot of people, some of whom might just want to see it more than a couple of times. For now, I’m satisfied with seeing it just the once, although I anticipate the desire for a second viewing will overtake me in due time.
Let’s begin with our lead. While not exactly an emotional performance — that’s kind of the point; Andrew hasn’t been able to feel, well, anything for the last decade and a half — Zach Braff puts us in the head of his character. We understand precisely how he feels after just a few short scenes thanks to the way the film was shot, edited and performed. As he breaks out of the shell placed upon him, it makes you feel good. After all, he’s not a bad person. He’s just had relatively bad luck and didn’t have the ability to overcome that … until now.
What causes this change? Some would argue that Sam is the main catalyst in this area. She, a free-spirit, represents something that Andrew has never had. She has a great home and an outgoing personality, both of which are foreign notions to our protagonist. On a more practical level, she provides Garden State an energy that is sorely lacking when Andrew is the sole character on-screen. She simply brightens up the picture.
This is not even beginning to mention how funny it is. When smart, sharply written characters get together, you’re generally bound to get some moments of comedy. While it’s not exactly a laugh-out-loud type of comedy, this film will probably make you laugh more than many of the comedies that get released on a weekly basis. If you want to classify Garden State as a romantic comedy, you wouldn’t be wrong in doing so. Many of those tropes are there, but they feel fresh because of the way that Braff handles them.
It’s always surprising when a directorial debut feels this polished. You can always wonder whether or not it was a fluke, or if we’re seeing a promising filmmaker emerge before our very eyes. It takes restraint to not be overindulgent, too, and that’s something Braff does perfectly with Garden State. His film is wonderfully paced, with no dull moments and very little, if any, room for additional material to be thrown in. In addition, it runs for a very nice 102 minutes, and never feels long because of that.
Garden State is a very enjoyable comedy about the struggles of twentysomethings across the globe, even without all of the hyperbolic problems that impede the progress of our lead in this film. They’re here just to allow the film to make its point, which is does wonderfully. This is a film by a director who understands what he’s doing both in front of and behind the camera, and that polish comes through in a big way. Garden State is a relatable, funny, charming film, and I recommend that you give it a watch.