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Garden State   A

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Zach Braff
Writer: Zach Braff
Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm.

Review by Rob Vaux

Coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen, but Garden State is that rare exception that pulls the sword from the stone intact. It presents an array of quirky characters and absurd situations that might have ended up as sitcom fodder. But writer-director Zach Braff brings imagination and poignancy to every frame, raising it from laugh-track mediocrity into the rarified air of an instant classic.

His secret is underplaying it. Protagonist Andrew Largeman (played by Braff) is an overly-medicated Holden Caulfied, lost beneath the white noise of Los Angeles. He's living about 20 seconds behind the rest of the world, oblivious to a life on permanent pause. With remarkable subtlety, Braff makes his hero's emotional state the backbone of the film's humor: a sort of stunned disbelief in reaction to an increasingly bizarre set of circumstances. The death of his mother sends him back home to New Jersey for the funeral, where he encounters former high-school buddies lost in their own version of his haze, and a father (Ian Holm) who's partially responsible for his condition. At first, the social landscape looks as fractured as it did in L.A. One of his friends has become rich patenting "silent Velcro" and now cruises around a huge, empty mansion in a golf cart. Another (Peter Sarsgaard) digs graves for a living -- which he supplements by stealing jewelry from the deceased -- and has access to a funny/scary subculture that operates (sometimes literally) between the walls of the normal world.

For a time, Garden State is completely preoccupied with the existentialist circus of such figures, presenting Largeman's old acquaintances as an amusing combination of walk-on sketches and visual pokes in the ribs. The details bubble with cleverness, but he rarely draws direct attention to them, allowing us to find and react to them on our own. Braff's performance is absolutely vital in that regard. Largeman is present to observe every ridiculous sight gag or buffoonish outburst, his Keaton-esque stare perfectly reflecting our own bemused perplexity. The rhythm of shot/reaction shot becomes a science unto itself, leading to laughs not in short intense bursts, but gradual waves passing through the theater as each audience member catches on. Few comedies of any stripe have the courage to trust its viewers that much.

And yet if it had contented itself with jokes alone, the film would be no more than a disposable trifle. The real juice comes when Largeman meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a younger woman whose goofball energy shakes away his lethargy. Their off-center romance hits a perfect note, focusing Garden State's wandering attention into a strong and memorable engine. Portman finds a delicious groove for this take on her usual persona; the role is essentially just a bundle of funny tics, which would have devoured a lesser actress whole. But she is unparalleled at making her cuteness endearing instead of annoying, and in her hands, Sam's fractured optimism -- tinged with just a shade of wistfulness -- becomes truthful and firm.

So too do the other characters follow her example, claiming their humanity amid the absurdist atmosphere. Their world is fresh and believable; strange, to be sure, but also a place where we might venture if we just allow our steps to wander. Garden State's closest cousin is The Graduate, which also discovered beauty in the cognitive disconnect between the things we see and the things we logically expect. But the tone here has been updated, striking unique chords that speak to a 21st-century brand of alienation. It's optimistic without ignoring reality; it acknowledges pain but never succumbs to it. As a human comedy, we haven't seen its like in years... save perhaps Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, whose loopy couple might recognize the look on Largeman's face. The current crop of twentysomethings are likely more familiar with it than most, but few of us haven't been there in some form or another. Few of us haven't stared out goggle-eyed at the world and said to ourselves,"That did NOT just happen." Garden State is the poetic encapsulation of that singular human experience, and on the short list of the best films of the year.

Review published 08.18.2003.

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