Worth A Look: 21.64%
Just Average: 8.58%
Pretty Crappy: 2.99%
14 reviews, 184 user ratings
by Marc Kandel
“Garden State” is an urban fairy tale about getting a second chance to be happy- something that really doesn’t happen for most poor schlubs out there. Throughout the movie I asked myself, “Should I buy into this?” Yes. Absolutely. “Garden State” is thoroughly enjoyable, original, unabashed twenty-thirtysomething/actor/jewish/misanthrope/romantic fantasy to which you can pop open a beer and treat yourself.A troubled young man comes home in wake of a parent’s death which he may or may not have been a contributing factor towards, and must deal with the world he had left behind in search of a completely new life built on some early success which has now leveled out into mundane drudgery. He returns to confront a mishmash of parental love, resentment and awkwardness, old friends both relevant and obsolete, leftover high school lummox mentalities, Jewish guilt, and the ever uncomfortable “hometown boy made good- so what now?” perception from others. Done before? Sure. Done this well? Not often, but this entry definitely swims with the best in this category.
"A welcome evolution in the dramedy of the adrift, lost individal."
There are flavors of “The Graduate, Swingers, Ghost World, Clerks,” and a host of other films dealing with the absurdity and paralyzing pain of reconciling your comfort and discomfort of the place you grew up in, one’s potential, one’s dreams, and the disturbing reality of what you have or have not accomplished, where you have ended up, and where you need to go in life. Add a shot of vivacious, life-saving/renewing romance, mix with 8 gallons of dubiously prescribed Prozac, shake, and you have “Garden State” a film capturing the best feelings, emotions, humor, and heart of the aforementioned films, but standing on its own as a completely original, extremely pleasurable work.
Other movies have attempted to capture this mood and these topics, typically ending up with horrifically derivative, retread anti-entertainment like “The Pallbearer”. Vleh. “Garden State” raises the bar by finding new ways to explore the territory, deftly avoiding cliché and easy jokes in favor of finding new humor in recognizable situations and going for wry wit and vivid imagery over lazy yuks. Ok, there is a non-sequitur, random leg hump from a large dog at one point- but misguided animal coitus is comedic gold, so I can forgive- plus I was laughing my fool head off.
In a more reflective, sober moment, one might have the nagging feeling that “Garden State” might, at it’s core, tread the same real-life-as-surreal-fantasy-ground for out of work actors and disenchanted late 20’s to 35’s as Sex In the City does for roving packs of New York spreadleg wannabe twits who really think falling down on a model runway is an actual, real problem to be solved and pondered in day-to-day life or Ally McBeal for assholes who would like to believe that lawyers are attractive, harmlessly eccentric, charming people who sit around fucking each other in their unisex bathrooms between insipid, selfish hallucinations rather than spending all day going through stacks and stacks of paper alone in a basement and billing ridiculous amounts for said work every 7 1/2 minutes of their day, or even worse, yet another lame attempt at remaking or exploring concepts well-covered in “The Graduate”. But these are very extreme comparisons, and indeed real-life-as-fantasy labels can be applied to most every movie or TV show out there. The point is, “Garden State”, a concept which could easily veer off the road into these ditches keeps its balance and does not fall into manipulative or candy-ass banality as it is sincere enough to stand above the aforementioned vapid pretenders in the “bending the rules of real life and getting your happy ending” stylings.
The eccentricity found in “Garden State’s” characters and situations, ranging from a home whose first design priority is for their pet hamsters, to a friend’s boozy mother who serial dates knights from her job as a serving wench at Medieval Times, to a guy whose wealth from creating Silent Velcro (hah!) has left him with so much money in a town devoid of taste that he has no idea what to do with his opulence other than buy a large empty manse and drive a golf cart around it, is delivered at rapid fire pacing at the start of the film (and this made my David E. Kelly Syndrome alarm bells go off). But here, the eccentricities on display ring true due to the firm grounding of the central characters- Braff, Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard, who acknowledge the rampant quirkiness by either shutting down in the face of it, defying it, or manipulating it to their advantage as the suburban weirdness/normalcy is a small part of what has touched off their disconnections and disgruntlements to the world in the first place.
The story and its players have the heart to make this strange journey into life’s everyday problems count. That the film is a total riot helps as well, yet it balances its zanier moments with believable observations and consequences. Director, writer and lead Zach Braff has brought about a solid, layered tale of coming home and managing to excavate the nice things that made home worth all the pain and angst of growing up in the first place, whilst giving the miserable junk that weighted your heart down a spirited heave-ho with the help of romance and closure- sounds like tacky and ridiculous Lifetime movie right? Again, it’s all in the execution, done to extraordinarily pleasing effect here.
That’s not to say “Garden State” is without its problems- and no, I’m not fishing for one negative thing just cuz I take myself to be some sort of a critic- the film has some long moments that may test your will to stay awake if you’ve popped this on after a busy day and the lights are low- and it’s almost intentional, as if the film exudes the haze of prescription drugs that have numbed and sedated the main character. It’s a very, very small bump that I must make mention of, and at the same time, I should say that if you watch the DVD you will see that there has been more of a dollop of editing performed already, which is a credit to Braff’s good sense (though I lament the editing of the electronic, motion-sensor Mezzuzah, low percentage joke that it is, from the theatrical run). In contradiction to what I just said, the cut scenes are well worth giving a look as well, apart from the initial viewing, but better off having not weighted down the running time.
As a performer, Zach Braff is unrecognizable from his asexual, foppish, Scrubs cartoon character (which despite my seemingly derogatory adjectives, I consider one of TV’s better characters in a top notch ensemble comedy- I note ensemble because without the rest of the cast I would probably crawl through my TV and choke him). Instead we see his character, Andrew Largeman, as the calm, or at least, restrained center in a maelstrom of absurdity- it is a complete reversal from the spastic, twitchy Dr. Dorian most audience members are used to. Look at his face in the opening as he rides into Newark airport amid terrified, panicked passengers inside a shaking, troubled airplane. We will find out later that he is indeed sedated to the gills, but there is some wonderful resignation in his face conveying that death might be more palatable than returning to New Jersey or continuing life in Los Angeles. In my heart of hearts I’d like to believe he’s not on sedatives at all during this scene- he simply does not fear a fiery death in the face of his current life as a completely disconnected late 20’s man who has lost his way- a horrifying thing indeed (far scarier than recent horror offerings "The Grudge", "Cursed" or "Boogeyman"). I love this brief moment- hilarious, heart-wrenching, and a promise of great things to come.
Peter Sarsgaard plays Andrew’s old best friend from high school, Mark, a man perfectly content with his lot in life as a perpetually stoned grave digger with no pressure from or tolerance for other people’s expectations and definitions of success. Mark proves himself to be a truly decent, accepting friend- the kind you so rarely can keep from your school days. Sarsgaard has a great deal of fun in his role, but never lets the eccentricities overwhelm the character- the stoner attitude is there, but so is the intelligence, the soul, and the resentment of puppet-head idiots around him, so he never becomes the road trip, tye-dyed caricature most movie pot smoking characters are content to ape. I would like to see more of this actor, whose honest, earnest performance I noticed back in “Man in the Iron Mask” where apart from his very nice work, I was convinced someone took cell samples of John Malkovich and created Dolly the cloned Malkovich- And then of course named him Peter.
A word about Natalie Portman- you remember that scene in “Hook” (don’t fucking lie to me, you went out and saw it along with the rest of us when it came out) where the little kid takes Robin William’s face and tries to peek between the age lines, and wrinkles and extra pounds to find the young Peter Pan inside and then goes…”Oh THERE you are Peter!”? Well, that’s honest to God what happened to me concerning Natalie Portman in this film- except I’m resoundingly not a precocious little black child in a day-glo feel-good skid mark. Anyway, as I peeked through all the female coming of age “taste my menstrual blood” films, the George Lucas Star Whores Drillogy excrement, and oh, the last um… ten, twelve years, I found the actress I was so taken aback by in “The Professional.” There she is. Gosh I’ve been looking for you for so, so long. I didn’t think I would find you again. Haven’t seen “Closer” yet, but gee, I certainly will now. Good to see you, so good to see you. You make me happy with your talent. You’re just lovely. Lovely. Jean Luc Besson- you may officially take the sofa plastic off your “Matilda” script (Though you might have to change the name, Roald Dahl copped it for his film). She’s back. I’m so happy she’s back- Her portrayal of Sam, a troubled, lonely young woman Andrew meets at his physician’s office (during the aforementioned dog hump scene) is a charming, joyous performance bursting with life. It’s so good to see her again in something worth her time and personality. Get your contractual obligation to Lucas over with, and come back to us. Oh look, "V for Vendetta." Perfect. Just perfect. One adult ticket, please.
Ian Holm, playing Andrew’s flawed, beaten father is par for his typical magnificence in just about any role he gets his hands on. The man’s pain over his lost wife and uncomfortable recriminations over how he has chosen to deal with his son both as a father and an analyst (oooh, squirmingly bad move Pop), is palpable in his every gesture and word. This role is the anchor which prevents the movie from drifting off into some comedic fever dream- the situation here is real and serious and hangs over Andrew’s head at every waking moment- and it shows to beautiful effect.
The film is also backed and complemented by a stellar collection of music that was pleasing enough to warrant me going out and purchasing the whole thing rather than swiping tracks off the net. I rarely ever pick up any soundtracks that are anything other than orchestral scores, so that's saying something.
“Garden State” is a journey with an end (or beginning) that I would very much like to believe in. I bought the concept. I enjoyed it. The right side of my brain wishes I had written it- the left side reminded me I’m a lazy ass who can barely get a movie review out once a month. I imagine many, many people both in and out of the entertainment industry and from most small towns probably had the same reaction. I had a big dopey grin on my face for the majority of the film, so much fun was I having with the experience. To quote Whoopi Goldberg’s character from “Star Trek Generations,” it’s like “being wrapped in joy”- Great. I found an applicable use for a line from “Star Drek Masturbations”. Go find that in any one else’s review. This is the talent I have to share.A fine, funny film that doesn’t skimp on the despair and makes its characters earn their happy or at least happier endings. Really worth your time.
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originally posted: 03/22/05 12:05:20
|OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Los Angeles Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Leeds Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Leeds Film Festival series, click here.