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Garden State (2004)

Directed by:

Zach Braff

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 102 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

Country: United States

After his childhood involvement in an accident that left his mother paralysed, Andrew Largeman, or 'Large' (Zach Braff), has been sleepwalking in a permanent haze of lithium prescribed by his own psychiatrist father (Ian Holm), and has not seen his family for nine years. Stirred from an LA half-life of TV bit-parts and restaurant jobs by news of his mother's death, Large comes off his meds for the first time since he was ten, and heads home for New Jersey. There, while putting off for as long as possible the inevitable 'talk' with his father, Large hooks up with his old friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), makes a new one in compulsive liar Sam (Natalie Portman), and slowly reattaches himself to the world of experience and emotion.

The plot where a man returns home to reclaim his identity is at least as old as Homer's 'Odyssey', and while in American independent cinema the catalyst for such homecomings tends to be a Thanksgiving dinner, in 'Garden State' (as in 'The Big Chill') it is instead a funeral – although 'Garden State' still features its fair share of awkward family moments and cold turkey. There is little real surprise to be found either in Large's therapeutic confrontation with his father, or in the romantic direction taken by Large's relationship with Sam (with Natalie Portman playing essentially the same rôle as in her much earlier 'Beautiful Girls', except that in the meantime she has come of age, making sex a more conventional, less creepy cinematic prospect), but what makes 'Garden State' such a pleasure to watch is its great sensitivity to human detail. Even minor characters are depicted with enough individuality and idiosyncrasy to seem like real, believable people rather than mere plot fillers – from Kenny (Michael Weston), a former cokehead who became a cop in part because of the great financial benefits he would accrue if shot on duty, to Titembay (Ato Essandoh), Sam's adopted African brother who likes to put his criminal forensics studies into practice at home, to Large's friend Jesse (Armando Riesco), who lives alone and bored on a vast property after making his fortune inventing 'silent velcro'. The one exception is Large's father, who seems a mere foil to Large's own recovery, and whose part as misguided, monstrous patriarch is so insubstantially written that not even the under-used Ian Holm can make it live and breathe.

Braff is playing the same dazed-and-confused nebish for whom he has become famous in television's medical comedy 'Scrubs', but here, amidst all the suburban surrealism, he also gets to explore a more serious side of himself as he looks into life's “infinite abyss”. Braff is also the writer/director of 'Garden State', and it is certainly an impressive debut, bristling with memorably absurd lines and neurotic stylings. The cinematography at first tracks the chemically-induced abstraction of Large, using varied speeds, blurred images, alien's-eye aerials and other distancing effects, before moving to a final sequence of long takes bathed in harsh white to reflect Large's one inspired moment of clarity. In a film so full of repressed emotions, Braff proves adept in the use of sympathetic landscapes: dripping taps, falling leaves and pouring rain provide a neat contrast to Large's inability to cry, while (in what is the film's most striking image) Large's lurid new shirt, cut from the same cloth that his mother used to decorate the interior walls, show that he is inescapably a part of the home from which he feels so removed.

Towards the end of the film, Large must decide (to use his own metaphor) between continuing to put an ellipsis on what is important in life, or settling on some sort of full stop. The film's end, however, is punctuated by neither of these, but instead by a resounding question mark – and that, ultimately, is what allows 'Garden State', for all its apparent appeal to the fanciful clichés of romance, to root itself in something more like real life.

It's Got: A range of believably quirky characters, outstanding acting (especially from Zach Braff, Natalie Portman and the great Peter Sarsgaard), a strikingly neurotic visual style.

It Needs: For the main characters monstrous father to be as substantial and rounded as the other characters.

Alternatives:

Beautiful Girls, Igby Goes Down, The Big Chill, The Myth of Fingerprints

Summary

This coldturkey odyssey begins with a death, and ends with life in all its chaotic Large-ness.

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