Friday, September 03, 2004

'Garden State' a nice change of pace

—Originally published 9.3.04

At the end of a summer movie season filled with big-budget special effects and blaring soundtracks, it's refreshing to sit through a quiet, quirky film like "Garden State."

Refreshing, but not overly moving.

"State" marks the solid directing debut of 29-year-old Zach Braff, star of NBC sitcom "Scrubs," who also wrote the script and plays the lead character, Andrew Largeman. Braff succeeds in maintaining an off-beat, muted tone throughout, putting the audience as much as possible behind the clouded eyes of the main character.

As the movie opens, Andrew learns -- via a message on his answering machine -- his mother has drowned in the bathtub and he must return home to New Jersey (the Garden State) for her funeral.

Andrew was sent away to boarding school as a 16-year-old and it's been nine years since he last visited his hometown of Newark; the time away hasn't been kind. He lives in Los Angeles, waiting tables at a trendy Vietnamese restaurant while trying to make it as an actor. (His biggest claim to fame was playing a mentally challenged quarterback on TV.) His medicine cabinet is full of anti-depressants prescribed by his psychiatrist father (an under-used Ian Holm) and Andrew, in his own words, wanders through life in a numb haze.

"It's recently occurred to me that I may not even have a problem, but I wouldn't even know it because for as long as I can remember, I've been medicated," Andrew tells a doctor he is seeing for headaches.

Andrew is not alone, though. As he re-enters life in the Garden State, he bumps into all of his old friends from high school, equally numb to the world -- only instead of prescription drugs, they use alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy to escape their ennui.

All but one. While in the doctor's waiting room, Andrew meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a firecracker who could care less what the rest of the world thinks of her or her cooky family. Andrew spends the remainder of the film -- about three days -- hanging on to this young woman, a life preserver dragging him from the depths of his metaphorical drowning.

A mixture of Julia Roberts and Jennifer Garner (but quirkier than both combined), Portman steals "Garden State." If your only exposure to this fine young actress is through the "Star Wars" prequels, you haven't really seen her perform.

Braff's story (for mature audiences only) is enjoyable on the whole -- laugh-out-loud funny in parts and equally touching in others -- but it smacks a bit too heavily of another (better) film, 1996's "Beautiful Girls," which also featured a fine Portman performance.

There are plenty of good messages in "Garden State," though, including the dangers of over-medicating children, the empty thrills of drug abuse and the illusion that an easy life is a happy life. Yet after an hour and a half of off-kilter, charming work, Braff lets his film slip too close to romantic comedy cliché -- and the conclusion falls rather flat.

Grade: B

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