Retro Review: Garden State
So, it’s the mid-2000′s and Zach Braff is the star of a somewhat popular TV show about a whimsical doctor facing (as Pete Trav might say) hilarity and heartbreak in his intense albeit quirky workplace (the illustrious Sacred Heart). The country is firmly in the ironically charming grip of Wes Anderson and the American version of The Office is about to premiere. The time was right and the iron was hot for this young buck to satiate his directorial urges (which he had successfully cultivated on multiple Scrubs episodes) and fully capitalize on the then pervasive American inclination towards dry humor, sarcasm and whimsical melancholy. Thus, a little film called Garden State was born.
Garden State’s story is so familiar (especially in the arena of independent film) that it is almost barely worth mentioning. Still, here is the basic premise: Following the death of his mother a guy who is emotionally barren returns to his hometown after more than a decade and is awoken to the possibilities of life following a chance encounter with a spirited young woman. Pretty simple stuff right? Still, it is probably unfair to examine Garden State via the strength of its story as it is the style in which this story is presented that Braff is clearly more interested in. When viewed in this light Garden State is a success – at least partially.
Braff does some heavy lifting with this movie. Not only is it his directorial and feature film screenwriting debut but he also takes on the lead role of the film. Braff portrays a guy named Andrew Largeman, a heavily medicated actor/waiter living in Los Angeles who must heed the call of his cantankerous father, Bilbo Baggins (the especially crusty albeit always welcome Ian Holm) to return to the garden state. Braff’s never been an actor of tremendous or transformative range – although he has always employed a rather enjoyable screen presence and has proven (mostly through his work on Scrubs) that he is more than capable of giving an effective performance that bounces between comedy and drama. So, for the most part, Braff is in his element here, anchoring the film and handling his character’s modulation from drugged out zombie to refreshed idealist with subtle proficiency.
Far less successful is the character of Sam, played by the enormously overrated Natalie Portman. Now, Portman’s acting in the movie is for the most part fine – although her character’s endless neurotic prattle (which is clearly meant to be perceived as adorable) could get under the skin of even the most stoic of viewers. The problem with this character lies primarily in the writing. Watching Garden State one would have the impression that Braff clearly thought he was writing a vibrant and distinctive female character (something which would be a welcome reprieve from most movies). Now, while Portman’s character is certainly.. unique, she doesn’t possess a character arc aside from her assertion that Andrew’s presence in her life has allowed her to “lie less frequently.” The character possesses a lot of superficial traits that are thrown at the audience (compulsive lying, epilepsy, adopted brother) yet none of it factors into anything substantial (at least not compared with Andrew, whose use of lithium is an essential part of the story).
To some degree the character of Sam is indicative of all that is right and wrong with a film like Garden State. Braff has a clear filmmaking eye and for the most part the film looks fantastic. Working together with his director of photography, Lawerence Sher, Braff creates rich, artful images (such as the wallpaper shirt scene pictured above) and adds flair to conversation scenes which could have been utterly banal (such as the Sam/Andrew discussion in the swimming pool). The film’s much-lauded soundtrack (compiled by Braff) is indeed effective and a joy to listen to. Finally, Braff displays a successful and almost single-minded pursuit to create set-pieces (such as the Method Man hotel scene) that command the viewer’s attention on a level almost comparable to the actors and the dialogue.
However, similar to how the Sam character contains a bunch of quirky yet unsubstantial character traits, the stylish nature of Garden State’s design also rarely transcends feeling like anything other than a superfluous gimmick. One example of this comes during a scene where Braff wakes up after a party to an old high school acquaintance walking around in a suit of armour. The shot serves as an interesting visual gag but adds very little to the dynamic of that character sleeping with Peter Sarsgaard’s (who’s excellent, as usual, in the film) character’s mother. Another example would be the film’s perplexing use of Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” The song is perhaps fitting for some facets of Largeman character (as it is a great musical depiction of loneliness and isolation). However, the song is used, strangely, at the exact moment where Largeman comes out of his loneliness and depression.
Final Verdict: Stylish design and affecting acting fuel Braff’s freshman effort behind the camera. While riddled with arbitrary flourishes and some questionable writing, Garden State, on a whole, is indicative, of a director/writer with true talent.