Thanks to the wonders of modern chemistry Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff), aka Large, dwells in a numb no man’s land devoid of feelings. Large left home for Hollywood soon after high school, becoming a moderately successful actor and he never looked back. When his mother dies, Large returns to New Jersey for the funeral and discovers that home is a distant memory. He divides his time between catching up with some old acquaintances, including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) who’s now the local gravedigger / “entrepreneur” and avoiding his father. Soon after, he meets Sam (Natalie Portman) a quirky young woman who represents everything he isn’t – crazy, warm and alive – and he decides it's time to live life without his chemical crutch.
Zach Braff, best known for his role in the TV sitcom “Scrubs”, was frustrated by the lack of films that explored that period in a person’s life when they’re no longer a teenager, have left home, and are faced with making some hard decisions about life. Braff, a devout film buff, decided to remedy the situation and after tossing around ideas for several years, he finally sat down and penned the script for 'Garden State' in 2000. He shopped the script around to several studios until he finally found a backer that both liked the project and would let him direct as well.
Large’s evolution from virtual zombie back to normality is gradual and subtle – there are no wild creative bursts. Instead he uncovers an innate shyness. Braff, who had actually tested several other actors before deciding to take the role for himself, draws the audience in with his unpretentious charm. Serving as his guide is Natalie Portman’s Sam. While she achieved worldwide recognition as Princess Amidala in 'The Phantom Menace', Portman’s earlier work in such films as 'The Professional' and 'Beautiful Girls' in which she displayed startling maturity and screen presence went largely unnoticed. Portman embraces Sam, the quirky free-spirited pathological liar, spinning her into a ball of creative insanity that’s just waiting to explode and her boundless optimism proves infectious.
Lending a darker tone to the film is Peter Sarsgaard’s Mark, the practical, amoral, shadow who lives on the fringes. Sarsgaard fleshes out Mark’s ambiguity so you’re never quite sure if you should like him or loathe him: sure he’s not above fracturing a few laws here and there, and treats most people with general disdain, but he knows what’s really important. Almost as important to the characters in this film is the music.
Unlike many films that feature a soundtrack that seems to have been chosen as an afterthought, Braff wanted to ensure that music was an integral part of the whole and captured the essence of the era. He went so far as to include a mood CD with the script and several executives who passed on the film approached Braff to inform him that it lived in their CD players. The masterful blending of music – ranging from the Shins to Simon and Garfunkel – with the thematic elements enhances the film’s flow and mood. As a jaded film/music reviewer colleague of mine noted after the screening, its worthy of the title “The Graduate of the New Millenium.” As with any great arrangement, there are several minor miscues.
When you have a script that is so meticulous when it comes to character development, music and pacing, it’s surprising to find dangling threads. The storyline involving Ian Holm as Large’s psychiatrist father is touched upon, yet never fully developed: it’s clear that their tenuous relationship is in tatters, but rather than explore it, Braff chooses ignores it, even though it is key to who Large is as a person. In a similar vein, Braff makes a point of letting us know that Sam is an epileptic, then offers no more explanation, which feels sloppy when you look at the film as a whole.
For a medium that typically deals with young adult angst as either a scatological no-brainer comedy or deadly earnest depressing drama, Braff seems to have found a comfortable middle ground. He balances the comedic and dramatic elements of the film and the talented cast enhances his vision. 'Garden State' is entertaining, introspective and enlightening - pretty good for a first time writer/director. And don’t forget the smokin’ soundtrack.