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Review: Garden State

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I’m not one who’s usually big on surprises. I tend to like to know what’s going to happen so I can be prepared when it does–I guess that’s why I have a bad habit of seeking out spoilers for the TV shows and movies and comics I enjoy. (OK, “seeking out” might not be quite right–”purposefully don’t do a good enough job of avoiding” might be better.) But I do like being surprised by people. When someone does something you didn’t know they could do or shows you a side of themselves you hadn’t seen before, that experience can be wonderful.

Garden State (2004)
Grade: A
Written and Directed By: Zach Braff
Starring: Zach Braff Natalie Portman Peter Sarsgaard Ian Holm
Studio: Fox Searchlight

Such is the case with Garden State, a movie written by, directed by and starring Zach Braff, most well-known as the genially goofy J.D. Dorian on the excellent sitcom Scrubs. Honestly, there’s no reason why it should be a surprise that Braff could write and direct a movie this funny, honest and touching. Just because we’ve only seen him as an actor isn’t reason to assume that’s the only thing he can do. But we like to pigeonhole our celebrities (assuming he fits into that category) into whatever label is most convenient: Braff’s just a funny sitcom actor, right?

As it turns out…nope. Not true at all.

Braff plays Andrew Largeman (a name that likely deserves more scrutiny), an actor who’s come back home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Andrew has spent his most of his life in a state of perpetual numbness, but that starts to change when he meets Sam (a luminous Natalie Portman), a sweet pathological liar who seems to feel everything a little too deeply. Both Braff and Portman portray their characters with warmth and subtle depth–these are both characters and actors who are easy to like, a vitally important ingredient in the romantic comedy recipe, and we’re rooting for them to make it in the end.

Braff’s hilarous and emotionally honest screenplay treats the audience with respect and assumes they’re smart enough to follow the details of what’s going on without needing to hand-hold them. The characters in Garden State feel like real people–fractured, idiosyncratic, full, alive people. And the story doesn’t hit all the expected notes–things that you’d normally expect to happen in a movie like this don’t happen, and instead pleasantly suprising things in their place. The story loses some focus late in the second act (a journey with Andrew’s buddy Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) to fetch a mysterious object), but the characters never lose our interest.

Braff has some solid chops as a director, too, especially for a rookie. He admits in the “Making Of” documentary included on the DVD that he’s an amateur photographer, and he shows a great eye for composition here. Braff also lets his actors carry the weight of their performances, letting the camera linger on their faces, sometimes a touch too long, but even then to good effect.

Garden State deals with some pretty heady subjects for a romantic comedy–and I toss that term out knowing full well this doesn’t fit the standard of a “romantic comedy.” Yes, it’s very romantic, and yes, it’s very funny, but Two Weeks Notice this ain’t.

Written by Allen

February 23rd, 2005 at 8:01 am

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