Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) returns to his New 'Garden State' Jersey home for the funeral of his mother, after yet another phone call from his father (Ian Holm) whose calls he never returns. Andrew is a mid-range tv actor in Los Angeles these days, and on his return, his few old friends gather round. Until now, Andrew has been taking a vast array of lithium-based pills, prescribed by his psychiatrist father, since he was 9, when in a fit of frustration with his depressed mother, he gave her a shove, which sent her flying over the faulty door of the dishwasher and broke her neck. The pills have kept him in a state of emotional and intellectual limbo, and he takes a break from them for the funeral. Simultaneously, at a party with his friends, he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), whose offbeat personality and natural warmth give Andrew a new look at the joyous pains of life.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Filled with acutely real moments and the readily understandable complexities of life, Garden State is an intriguing and complex film from start to finish. The opening scene is on board a small domestic flight that is apparently doomed to go down. In one seat, a young man is a calm and still eye of the surrounding human storm of fear and hysteria. This is Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff), we soon discover, as we look through the few days just passed.
Braff, who also wrote and directs, tells this story with great flair, lots of subtlety and a wonderfully paced set of revelations that come to us just as they might in real life. We discover things about the characters in snatches of conversation, pieces at a time. The revelations about Andrew's mother don't come out in a gush of a speech, for example, but in a variety of scenes. The storytelling structure is fuelled by this approach, and the characterisations are all remarkably effective.
Andrew walks back into a part of his life that he left behind - but it is still there. He finds the catalyst to a new and more exciting way of seeing the world - with feelings he never tried before - through Sam. Natalie Portman's face reveals the full range of her emotional experience as she is at first charmed and then intrigued and finally bowled over in full blooming love by Andrew.
So while Garden State is a bona fide love story, it is unlike most love stories on film. The central character is really muted for most of the time, his friends are low achievers - one is a grave digger, another works in a Medieval theme restaurant as a knight-waiter - and the subject matter is sombre: an over-medicated young man who killed his mother and is distanced form his father.... Yet Braff makes all this work with touches of humour and great slabs of humanity.
Review by Louise Keller:
There's plenty to engage us in this character-driven story about a young man who returns to his roots and discovers the meaning of his life. The story may not be new, but the characters are fresh and the performances vibrant from the young ensemble cast. I enjoyed the quirky humour that comes from honest observation, and writer/director Zach Braff, who is also the film's star, delights at discovering incongruities from all each of his characters.
Garden State is about dysfunctional families, and searching for change. Braff's protagonist Andrew is at the crossroads when he comes home to the Garden State of New Jersey for his mother's funeral. Try as he might, Andrew has never been allowed to forget the freak accident when he was nine, that rendered his mother a paraplegic. Estranged from his father (who is also his psychiatrist), Andrew has been living a mechanical life in LA, working as a second-rate actor and part time waiter, all the while sedated by a cocktail of anti-depressants. He is not in control of his life or his emotions.
When he meets Sam (Natalie Portman, lovely), his life changes. She is warm, emotional and enthusiastic - everything he is not. His LA apartment (like his father's house) is stark and totally stripped of personality; her house is chaotic with unruly pets and an unconventional family. She cries at the drop of a hat; he cannot shed a tear. There's a lovely scene in which they exchange confidences, while fully dressed in the bathtub. Sam tries to capture a runaway tear from Andrew's left eye, into a waiting paper cup.
We see life through Andrew's eyes, as he runs into his former school friends, and sees first hand that their lives have not amounted to much. Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) is a grave-digger, who has little aspirations beyond his Desert Storm card collection. Living by his own moral code, he makes extra money by robbing the dead of their jewellery. There's a former drug-dealer turned cop, a waiter from the local medieval restaurant chain who wears a knight's armour and an eccentric who lives in a Noah's ark-like caravan on the edge of a precipice. His father (Ian Holm) is a shell of a man, unable to relate to his son or communicate with him.
If there's a shortcoming to the film, it's in the fact that there is no great sense of place. The story could be set anywhere. Perhaps Braff's alternate title of Large's Ark would have been more apt. Performances, however are excellent, and we can relate to each character. Braff is likeable as the emotionally lost Andrew, while Portman steals our heart as vulnerable Sam. The strength of the film likes in its acute observations of the contradictory nature of human behaviour, leaving us well satisfied.
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ZACH BRAFF INTERVIEW
GARDEN STATE (MA)
CAST: Zach Braff, Ian Holm, Ron Leibman, Method Man, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Jean Smart, Ann Dowd, Denis O'Hare, Geoffrey Arend, Alex Burns, Jackie Hoffman, Armando Riesco
PRODUCER: Pamela Abdy, Richard Klubeck, Gary Gilbert, Dan Halsted
DIRECTOR: Zach Braff
SCRIPT: Zach Braff
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Lawrence Sher
EDITOR: Myron Kerstein
MUSIC: Chad Fischer
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Judy Becker
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: BVI
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 25, 2004