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Garden State

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 10/10/04 18:12:16

"A perfect microcosm of twentysomething angst."
5 stars (Awesome)

Calling a film like this Garden State is a bit like giving The Shawshank Redemption the name of Maine instead: yeah, it's set there, but that isn't really the point.

Sure, writer/director Zach Braff filmed all over northeast New Jersey, including in his home town of South Orange. He even included a drive-by shot of his old high school in the film Aside from a few identifiers, though, the state's role in the film is anonymously large: the fact that Andrew Largeman (Braff) has returned home is very important, but the fact that New Jersey is that home really isn't.

Andrew has returned to New Jersey for the first time in nine years to attend the funeral of his mother. At one point in the film, he ruminates on reaching a time when "the house you grew up in isn't really your home anymore," and what he finds in New Jersey fits that idea perfectly. The people he went to high school with have mostly turned into shiftless layabouts who spend a lot of their time doing drugs or finding ways to cheat the system.

From the start, Braff nails the awkwardness of returning home to find that things aren't as you left them. Andrew has a hard time relating to friends like Jesse (Armando Riesco), who was paid off handsomely after inventing a form of Velcro that didn't make noise and now spends his days in a mansion driving around in golf carts and doing little else. He doesn't do much better with Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), with whom he spends a lot of his time in the film but whose life choices he clearly finds problematic.

On the other hand, he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), with whom he quickly connects despite the oddity of their initial meeting (in the neurologist's office). Here Braff nails another critical aspect of the lives of those in their early to mid-twenties: the search for meaning. Andrew has had a lot of weird things happen in his life, and his acting work in Los Angeles and refusal to communicate with his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) are efforts to avoid them. Coming home for his mother's funeral forces him to face a lot of the issues head on, and when he does, his relationship with Sam forces him to decide what he really considers important.

Previously known only for his work on the NBC comedy Scrubs, Braff emerges as a triple threat with Garden State. Not only does he have range as an actor, able to do both comedy and drama and feel totally natural all the way through, but he is also a more than capable writer and an intelligent director. Films where the writer directs - and especially films where the writer/director is the star and has some personal ties to the material even aside from having written it - are often doomed to be bloated and pretentious, as someone so involved has a hard time viewing his own work critically. Braff either has good advisors or astounding personal restraint, because almost none of Garden State feels inessential, a distinction true of few movies of any stripe, and true of even fewer movies about twentysomething angst.

Garden State talks about life without ever sounding too impressed with itself, and much of its comedy lies in subtle moments of interaction that are all the funnier because while slightly blown up, they're never that untrue. The film's most mediocre moments lie in its attempts to work in quirks that make its characters seem more interesting - not necessarily because the quirks are stupid, but because they add an unnecessary element of weirdness to characters that didn't need the prodding to be interesting to the audience. The characters in Garden State are interesting because they feel so real, and adding layers of needless and outlandish complexity draws the viewer out of the film. Braff only makes this mistake in a handful of places, though, so it's hardly a big problem.

Funny, thoughtful, and touching, Garden State is ultimately a surprisingly affecting film. Like last year's Lost in Translation, it gets its claws in and carries the viewer on a ride to an emotional ending that leaves us numb - not because it's downbeat or unsatisfying, but because it takes the characters away from us before we're ready to let them go.

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