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GARDEN STATE (director/writer: Zach Braff; cinematographer: Lawrence Sher; editor: Myron Kerstein; music: Chad Fischer; cast: Zach Braff (Andrew Largeman), Ian Holm (Gideon Largeman), Ron Liebman (Dr. Cohen), Natalie Portman (Sam), Peter Sarsgaard (Mark), Armando Riesco (Jesse), Jackie Hoffman (Aunt Sylvia Largeman), Jim Parsons (Tim), Jayne Houdyshell (Mrs. Lubin), Jean Smart (Carol, Mark’s Mom), Ann Dowd (Olivia, Sam’s Mom), Denis O’Hare (Albert), Geoffrey Arend (Karl Benson), Michael Weston (Cop); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Pamela Abdy/Richard Klubeck/Gary Gilbert/Dan Halsted; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2004)
“Braff’s concern for both his struggling characters and how people with low self-esteem never give themselves a chance to grow seemed heartfelt.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

First-time director-writer Zach Braff’s (actor on TV’s Scrubs) pleasant romantic comedy is too cute to be very funny and too pleased with itself for pointing out the obvious absurdities of life to be great drama. Nevertheless the slight story is not without genuine feelings, a certain charm and a good message about handling a twentysomething’s alienation. It’s meant to convey for the modern generation what The Graduate and Harold and Maude did for their generations in the late 60s and early 70s. Though this film is not up there in class with those classics, it still has its poignant moments.

Andrew “Large” Largeman (Zach Braff) returns to his suburban New Jersey home after a nine year absence to attend his mother’s funeral. He attended boarding school as a teenager and has since lived in LA, where he’s a waiter and an aspiring actor (played a retarded quarterback on TV). Ever since he was nine, his psychologist father (Ian Holm) treated him with lithium to curb his supposed anger and with Zoloft for his depression, medicines that caused him to go through life feeling numb. The heavily sedated Large doesn’t even have an emotional reaction when learning his paraplegic mother drowned in her bath.

Large chooses to forgo taking his meds while back in the Garden State, in an experiment to see how he will react to not being drugged. The popular Large moves around town in his grandfather’s old motorcycle-with-sidecar and runs into some of his old public high school pals, such as a former cocaine snorter now, of all things, a policeman (Michael Weston), a fast food knight (Jim Parsons), a loser working in a hardware store and involved with pyramid schemes (Geoffrey Arend), an inventor of silent-Velcro who becomes a millionaire (Denis O’Hare), and a scheming stoner burnout gravedigger (Peter Sarsgaard) whom he spends a few joyous adventurous days with and a memorable night at a drug/sex party. Large’s luck changes for the better when he sees Dr. Cohen (Ron Leibman) about his flash headaches and meets in the neurologist’s waiting room an attractive sweet girl named Sam (Natalie Portman), who lets him listen on her headset to her favorite pop group the Shins (for this generation, it really means something when a chick lets you listen to her favorite music!). Sam is a pathological liar, chatty, vibrant, and his opposite as far as personality goes. Their relationship brings him out of his shell and helps him to reconcile with his father and face life with a renewed vigor. By the time Large is set to return to LA, he’s fallen in love with Sam and is able to defiantly shout down into what heavy-handedly symbolizes the edge of life’s infinite abyss (an excavation of a mall site abandoned in a quarry because of a pending environmental suit). This feel-good ending seemed contrived and unconvincing. It came with not enough of a story told to warrant such fast and easy returns.

The film suffers from its arty pretentiousness and going from one incident to another in such a superficial manner, but because of its excellent cast and in how the low-key story remains affecting the film never completely loses its sense of direction. There’s nothing about it to get one angry, and since the main characters are so sympathetically presented it was easy to root for them to find what they were looking for. There are not many films that have their protagonists returning home to find such happiness in the wastelands of Jersey, and Braff’s concern for both his struggling characters and how people with low self-esteem never give themselves a chance to grow seemed heartfelt.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”