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Garden State

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/25/05 01:28:14

"Flawed debut effort, but Braff is one to watch."
3 stars (Just Average)

"Garden State," writer/director/actor Zach Braff’s (television’s "Scrubs") debut film, mixes elements (and conventions) from romantic comedies, family melodramas, and the twenty-nothing/“slacker” sub-genre that had its heyday in the early to mid-nineties, with muddled, ultimately unsatisfactory results. The problem, as is often the case with young filmmakers, especially when they’re both writer and director, is an underwritten screenplay, whose flaws become obvious when the film turns from romantic comedy in the second act into family melodrama and a series of clichéd personal epiphanies.

Set mostly in New Jersey, the so-called Garden State of the title, Braff’s film actually begins (briefly) in Los Angeles, where Braff’s alter ego, Andrew “Large” Largeman ekes out a living as a waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant which seems to cater exclusively to the rich, the beautiful, and the obnoxious. Like his real-life counterpart, Large is an actor, but unlike his counterpart, he’s a struggling actor with apparently only one acting credit to his name, as a “retarded quarterback” on a short-lived television series. Worse than his failing, flailing acting career, however, is the double revelation of his mother’s accidental death and the audience’s discovery that Large has been medicated for the better part of fifteen years. In short, he’s emotionally numb, emotionally disconnected from the social world around (as evidenced by his bare, functional bedroom in the opening shot).

His return to suburban New Jersey to attend his mother’s funeral is attended by the expected awkward encounters and exchanges with friends and family members, none of whom he’s seen in years. Humor is provided from these encounters, due to the colorful cast of less-than-successful, post-college (or no college) slackers, including an old friend Mark (Peter Saarsgard), whose career trajectory has led him to digging graves at the local cemetery, getting stoned regularly, and partying with young women barely out of high school. Large’s numbness slowly evaporates over the course of the film, first due to his decision to lift his life from its medicated haze (he’s left his medications behind in Los Angeles).

Conflict comes from his cold, distant, distrustful father (Ian Holm, in a small supporting and undeveloped role) and the first moments of romantic attraction to Sam (Natalie Portman), an eccentric young woman who, not surprisingly, is the catalyst for both plot and the main character’s emotional maturity over the course of the film’s four days. Their first encounter is marked by the initial awkwardness inherent in the first glimmers of romantic attraction and attachment. Both characters are trapped in a post-adolescent, pre-adult stage. No surprise then that Braff uses music (and throughout the film) as the basis for their first encounter. Sam introduces Large to contemporary/alternative rock music (the Shins) that, hyperbolically speaking, will change his life (it’s not the music, of course, but Sam’s presence that prefigures change). Braff, with echoes of Stephen Frears' High Fidelity recognizes and exploits the importance of pop music for his central characters and his target audience, whether on the soundtrack (chosen by Braff himself) or through Sam's introduction to the "soundtrack of her life."

Where the film falters, however, is with the conventional revelatory scene between the main character and Sam at the end of the second act, when the effects of his medication have all but disappeared, and he can finally reveal the origin and nature of the traumatic event that led to his fifteen year medicinal haze. Unfortunately, Braff converts this revelation in the narrative into the almost humorless third act, which pales in comparison with the first two-thirds of the film. Like many writers and directors, Braff connects audience sympathy with the disclosure of a singular, life-altering traumatic experience, but he inevitably wanders into TV-movie-of-the-week territory: the tendency to convert a lifetime of neuroses into a single, reductive action or mistake, with the corollary that the main character’s confession of this action to his romantic interest leads to greater self-awareness, acceptance, and self-willed amnesia. It’s part of the stock pop-Freudian understanding of human psychology: once the repressed, traumatic experience is exposed to daylight, happiness (or contentment) is surely to follow. It’s a smug, simplistic plot development that leads to the third act, the confrontation with his father (a schematic relationship barely hinted at in the screenplay). Braff the screenwriter verbalizes the subtext underlying his personal journey (he even tells his father he’s been on a “journey”), and asks for a reconciliation.

Unfortunately, the screenplay’s sentimental turn in the last act isn’t its only problem. The third act turns on Mark taking Large and Sam on a day trip, but Large, now prepared for a more active role in the film, falls back passivity as Mark leads the three of them into a series of misadventures, culminating in a an externalized, metaphorical experience at the ridge of a newly discovered (apparently endless) gorge. From there, it’s only a plot turn or two until the main character and his romantic interest settle into the conventional closing shot. That’s not to say the final scene isn’t moving, but the potential was certainly present for better dialogue, which would have led to a more emotionally affecting close to the film. Still, for a mostly entertaining debut effort, "Garden State" is worth a view.

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