Garden State is indeed a state of mind, and at the beginning of the film, its protagonist's state of mind is uncomfortably numb. Andrew Largeman (writer-director Zach Braff) is only an occasionally successful actor who still has to schlep at a Vietnamese restaurant to pay the bills for his sparsely furnished flat, and is so heavily medicated that his pills deserve their own room. He lies in his white bed like a patient or a prisoner -- it's hard to tell which, or the difference. But when fate comes calling in the form of his mother's funeral, back home in suburban New Jersey, "Large" has to decide if he's finally going to snap out of it.
And that's it, really. That's Garden State, which should be so much less than it is but for the earnest, sincere efforts of Braff, the co-star of NBC's critically acclaimed sitcom, Scrubs. And if that earnestness and sincerity borders on the cloying, Braff hopefully can be forgiven, for he may not have crafted the most original film in recent memory but certainly one of the most honestly realized. That's what Braff is going for here, after all: a sincere addressing of our honest hopes, fears, dreams and nightmares. There's another word for it: adulthood. So Braff takes one of the more tried and true narrative notions -- you can never go home again -- and works through it. He also does it with a light comedic touch that either sails on or survives its sometimes calculated idiosyncrasies. (I still can't figure which.)
There is the karaoke-bad, a cappella version of the Commodores' "Three Times a Lady" sung at the funeral for his mother's funeral; the slacker ex-high school friend who's won millions for a patent on silent Velcro; the same-age lover of his former classmate's mother, dressed as a knight for a themed fast-food joint; and so on. Sam (Natalie Portman) is a walking quirk doll, to the point where you have to wonder if Braff doesn't have enough faith in his characters that he has to dress them up so much.
Sam has enough quirks for two characters. She's so unselfconsciously impertinent that on their meeting, she asks Large if he really is retarded after playing a retarded high school quarterback. Sam's also a compulsive liar, epileptic, cares for and buries a gazillion pets in her backyard, and her family features a Sally Struthers-delivered housemate from Africa. And yet Portman, who at the ripe old age of 23 is still looking for her first ingénue Oscar nomination, gamely tries to rise to the challenge of playing the kind of cute but goofy (and alive!) girlfriend every over-medicated young man could wish for. No Kate Winslet she, Portman gets by on those intricately plucked eyebrows, scrunchy grin and sheer persistence; she just keeps coming at you. This isn't the role of her career, but along with Cold Mountain it's a great way to towel off after a duet of Star Wars silliness.
Sam is a perfect foil for Large, who is every bit as closed off as she is wide open. He harbors years of guilt and disaffection from a childhood scar that, returning home for his mother's funeral, he must now confront. That means dealing with his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm), whose prescription for this scar was a whole mess of pills. Complaining to a hometown physician (Ron Liebman) of headaches -- "Like a little lightning storm in my head" -- Large decides to take a little vacation from the meds and see if he can feel again.
Before the inevitable meeting with his father, who thanks to Holm's performance lurks in the wings like a grey ghost, Large reconnects with a group that feels more like high school acquaintances than friends. Topping the list is Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who when not fighting with his mother (Jean Smart) over the family bong splits his time between digging, and then robbing, graves. Large and Mark reunite seemingly out of convenience, and along with Sam form a casual, triangular friendship that hints at promise for all of them.
For Zack Braff, the key to all this is what Large believes is understanding the "infinite abyss" that is life. That's a rather heavy notion, and there are probably those who might find Braff's work bordering on the pretentious. Which is perhaps why he sometimes feels compelled to lay on the quirkiness a little thick. He's said in interviews he's greatly inspired by that quirkiest of '60s comedies, Harold and Maude, and that May-December love story also had its share of existential angst. But movies like these survive on their honesty and charm, and Garden State has both by the bushel. Braff deserves the credit for all three of his contributions, all subtle, but particularly his acting. If he makes Large explicitly sympathetic, he often keeps him aloof and enigmatic, a straight man for the other characters to play off of. This isn't sitcom schtick, that's for sure. Braff knows the state of mind of both his character and his film and hints at a maturity we can't wait to see unfold.
- Growing pains: Sam (Natalie Portman) befriends Large (Zach Braff) in Braff's comedy-drama, Garden State.