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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 NBC’s 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 mother’s 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 year’s 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 Don’t Cry) proves once again that he may just be one of the most versatile and understated actors working today. Portman’s Sam is saddled with the thankless role of free-spirited eccentric who awakens Large to the vibrancy and immediacy of life, and though she’s game, it doesn’t 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 can’t take your eyes off her even when she seems slightly ill at ease with Braff’s Must-See-TV-ready dialogue. Of course, as the movie’s second half reveals, she was hired for her tear ducts anyway.
Braff shows promise as a director; he’s got a budding visual style and he balances a good deal of borderline sap and pretension for some time. But, as Large’s 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 it’s sad to see them trampled over when the time comes for him to literally howl into the abyss during a rainstorm. By the time Large’s newfound lust for life proves strong enough for him to finally confront his estranged father (Ian Holm), some viewers may be wishing he’d go back to the lithium.