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The current state of independent cinema is often bemoaned not
always unfairly for its safe and predictable crop of focus-group approved
quirk-fests. This charge has been lobbed at Sundance faves for years, and more recently,
at the many briskly comic oddities released by Fox Searchlight Pictures (The Good Girl, Napoleon Dynamite). So
what do we do with Garden State, a decidedly funny and quirky little movie that
lo and behold made a splash in Park City this year and is currently making
its way across the country courtesy of Fox Searchlight. This new film by twenty-nine-year
old Zach Braff (J.D. on NBCs wacko sitcom Scrubs) has all the trappings of
Indie-wood, yet steadfastly refuses to be labeled at every turn.
As the film opens, Andrew Largeman, played by Braff, who boldly pulls off the writer-director-star triple-threat in his first at-bat, has been living as a waiter/actor in Los Angeles. "Large" has been trying to escape his childhood for some time, as the bottles of lithium that line his medicine cabinet make plain. But when his mothers death beckons him home to Jersey for the first time in nine years, Large leaves the mood-stabilizers behind to see if he can bring his near-catatonic state into sharper focus.
What follows is an often riotous journey of self-discovery as Large re-connects with high school buddies to down pills (without prescriptions) and even bumbles his way into a romance with a kookball townie (Natalie Portman). Braff is a truly gifted comic performer with a winning smile and he shows great promise as a comic writer, letting jokes unhurriedly work their way out to huge laugh payoffs.
As a director, he takes a similarly naturalistic approach. A turnpike cousin to last years All the Real Girls, Garden State finds a genial tone and rolls with it, aided at every turn by a stellar supporting cast. Playing a burnout gravedigger, Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass, Boys Dont Cry) proves once again that he may just be one of the most versatile and understated actors working today. Portmans Sam is saddled with the thankless role of free-spirited eccentric who awakens Large to the vibrancy and immediacy of life, and though shes game, it doesnt quite work. Portman is an actress of undeniable poise as her recent turns in Cold Mountain and George Lucas zombified Star Wars cash-ins prove; you cant take your eyes off her even when she seems slightly ill at ease with Braffs Must-See-TV-ready dialogue. Of course, as the movies second half reveals, she was hired for her tear ducts anyway.
Braff shows promise as a director; hes got a budding visual style and he balances a good deal of borderline sap and pretension for some time. But, as Larges speeches about finding himself on a journey and unlocking the true meaning of existence pile up, the endearing images that he otherwise puts forth so effortlessly tend to get muscled out of the way. The movie is chock-full of sweetly disarming moments like Large watching a video of Sam ice-skating in an oversized alligator costume on a television smudged with fingerprints so its sad to see them trampled over when the time comes for him to literally howl into the abyss during a rainstorm. By the time Larges newfound lust for life proves strong enough for him to finally confront his estranged father (Ian Holm), some viewers may be wishing hed go back to the lithium.