Garden State

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Movie Reviews by

Jonathan Harvey and Neils Hesse

Starring: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Method Man, Jean Smart
Director: Zach Braff

Review by Jonathan Harvey

An independent movie seen by some as the surprise US hit of 2004, GARDEN STATE is very much Zach Braff’s film. As writer, director and star, this is some feature debut by the star of US sitcom SCRUBS. Braff plays Andrew ‘Large’ Largeman, a jobbing actor in L.A. who returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral after ten years spent estranged from his family. While back home he meets all sorts of old acquaintances, who are now working in bizarre jobs from gravedigger to knights selling fast food. He also has to face up to his psychiatrist father Gordon (played by Ian Holm), who’s been a domineering influence on ‘Large’ even from the opposite coast. Large’s fortunes take a turn, though, when he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a carefree colourful character who’s determined to make him make the most of life.

What makes GARDEN STATE work as a movie more than anything is its tone. Braff injects a laid back sense of humour to proceedings, and shows a good sense of visual timing. The soundtrack also helps build a sense of events washing over ‘Large’ rather than him actively seeking them out (Braff says many studio execs who said no to his script still kept listening to his mix tape of music for the film).

Here’s a danger at one point that the film will become just too morose to work as a comedy, but this evaporates with the appearance of Natalie Portman, whose performance as Sam is what gives the film its energy. Braff showed great foresight to choose her for such a role which, after years spent in the doldrums as far as good parts go, allows Portman to show what a talented actress she is. It’s even more impressive given that Sam’s character is under-written – she’s apparently epileptic and a compulsive liar, but without going into either trait in much depth they are left feeling a bit too much like clumsy devices. That said, Braff and Portman (and Peter Sarsgaard as friend Mark) display a great on-screen chemistry which lights up the story and makes any script niggles much easier to forgive.

Towards the end of the movie we learn that Large’s lethargy has been caused to a great extent by his dad’s decision to put him on medication, and perhaps if this was revealed earlier it would make Large’s position easier to sympathise with. As it stands, this part of the story feels rather underdeveloped and rushed (and Ian Holm is underused as the dad), but although not a perfect film GARDEN STATE has a great sense of warmth which makes it very difficult to dislike. It’s a well-crafted statement of twenty-something life in America and for a debut film from Braff it’s a gem, and well worth watching.

5 out of 6 stars
Review by Neils Hesse

Zach Braff of SCRUBS fame takes on both leading man and directing duties in this drama comedy. He plays a character who has lived on anti-depressant pills for most of his life and after many years has to return home for his mother’s funeral. He rekindles old friendships, meets a girl, faces up to his dominating father who has been both his therapist and parent for way too long and finally deals with his past, present and future.

Some have referred to this as a film that defines a generation, well that would be a very depressing thought considering that this film has a grave robber as one of its central characters and a father who has prescribed a brain-numbing drug to his son for most of his life.

Still even though it may not be the generation defining film that some tout it to be, it is good.

The storyline is quite predictable in parts, the comedy is very wry and quirky except for a hilarious dog humping leg scene in an early part of the movie. The characters are all interesting enough but are not allowed to develop properly as most of the emphasis is put on the central character. The film marries comedy to drama but ends up being romantic in a sweet inoffensive way. There is not really anything that wrong with this film it’s just that there is equally nothing particularly effecting about it. Halfway through the film we discover something about the central character that explains why he is on depressants and this is meant to create empathy for him but it’s already a bit too late in the game to change the already formed opinions.

Natalie Portman stands out here as the sweet simple girl who the leading man meets and ultimately falls for. She gives a restrained performance that suits the part perfectly. Zach Braff manages to juggle both the directing and acting duties adequately.

All in all this is an average yet entertaining movie that should make its target audience of 18 to 30 year-olds suitably satisfied.

3 out of 6 stars