The good news about Garden State is that if someone has told you it’s great and you’ll like it, it is and you will. That’s assuming you’re part of a certain demographic: adrift (to your bemused chagrin) and without enough to show for your twenties, infuriated by failing to use this fact as material for something artful, and unfulfilled by all the vocations you’ve had the freedom to try—collectively, the unresolved opening act of your adulthood. If you believed the premonition that your sensitivity—your oddity, really—would eventually become useful, and now wonder whether that was just a callow delusion, well, you have a trustworthy friend in Garden State, and in anyone who recommends it.
I recommend it. What a weird, unprecedented privilege or horror it is for young people to feel so lost, especially given the fucked-up families we come from and the age in which we live (not least, the fact that there’s a war going on). Zach Braff was brave to try to dramatize this, and even braver to produce, direct, and star in the work.
The first few minutes of Garden State are all about him—or at least about his character, Andrew Largeman—and have no shortage of close-ups, but, amazingly, no bombast either. Right away, you get the idea that you’ll actually want to spend a whole movie with the guy—that he’s not, in other words, going to get all Warren Beatty on you.
He does warm up the audience a bit, as if to say: Yes, I’m the guy from Scrubs and let me start with a little of that familiar sitcom business so you know you can trust me; but then I’m going to get to the real stuff and I want you to pay attention, okay? Fair enough. Once the movie took full ownership of its amused, melancholic mood, I was hooked. Braff knows the difference between sensitivity and sentimentality. He uses both, but his film nimbly dodges its own potential melodrama, and—mercifully—doesn’t become too preoccupied with its nimbleness.
How, otherwise, could this scenario work? Andrew, an aspiring actor, comes home to New Jersey from Hollywood for the funeral of his estranged, quadriplegic mother. It’s not his fault that she died, but he did cause the accident that paralyzed her. Since then, his father (Ian Holm) has been his psychiatrist, and they’ve become estranged, too. After treading water through his post-adolescent life in a bottomless cocktail of antidepressants, Andrew (“Large” to his friends) is feeling numb—except, of course, for his chronic, crippling headaches. His best buddy (Peter Sarsgaard) still hasn’t left their hometown, and won’t, but now gets by as a stoner gravedigger—and, um, robber—who meets Large again when burying his mom.
Because every picture needs one, and most young men do too, Large meets a girl. His courtship with Sam (Natalie Portman) begins excellently: In a neurologist’s office, she recognizes him from his breakthrough TV role as a retarded quarterback, wonders if he’s really mentally challenged, and, learning that he isn’t, commends what must therefore have been a brilliant performance. Sam is exquisitely eccentric. (Roger Ebert wryly and correctly described her as “one of those creatures you sometimes find in the movies, a girl who is completely available, absolutely desirable and really likes you.”) She has a suburban home life that reads as genuine precisely because it feels like the haphazardly gathered notes for an unwritten farce.
It will be up to her to rescue Large from his torpor; bringing him fully back to life will also require help from (whom else?) the gravedigger and a visit to the edge of the deepest hole he knows of, a very literal embodiment of the void.
A movie about thawing from numbness must be deeply felt but precisely calibrated. Because The Graduate has already been made, and so, for that matter, have three Wes Anderson films, Braff had his work cut out. He wants us to take some things on faith, but he earns our consent. Garden State is an attractively nuanced work, and its unsubtle moments are the mark of a rookie, not an idiot.
I’ll bet people will be calling Braff an actor’s director if they don’t already; he’s keenest when orchestrating the movie’s human elements. That includes making great use of Ian Holm, whose choices are so simple, so openly declarative, that even when his character seems a bit thinly written, his performance is unimpeachable. Holm sets a standard before we even see him, with nothing more than a short message on an answering machine. There’s a startling efficiency in that very early plot point; it might have seemed too much like lazy, film-schoolish dramatizing had Braff and Holm not managed to enrich it as they do. They manage the same in the later and necessarily heart-rending scene in which Andrew unexpectedly lays a hand on his father’s chest and the old man flinches, but lets it lie.
The supporting cast does well also: Portman and Sarsgaard offer generous, affecting performances. But I especially enjoyed the actors who played the neurologist (Ron Leibman) and the spiritually-grounded quarry guard (Denis O’Hare), both recognizable from their great character work in Law & Order, both refusing to reduce anything, and both making the most of their brief appearances in Large’s world.
New Jersey, too, is perfectly cast as a place you might come home to from somewhere like Hollywood only to realize it’s really true that you can’t go home again, and wonder what the hell you should do instead. I suppose meeting Natalie Portman in a neurologist’s waiting room would be nice.
Garden State is kind of an emotional reflex text, and lately, a means by which far-flung friends have checked in on me—asking if I’ve seen it, telling me it’s great and I’ll like it. The trustworthy friends are also the ones who will tell you that the movie has flaws, but that goes without saying—anything human does.
Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every second Friday.