Garden State Reviews
The aforementioned writing/directing debut is that of actor Zach Braff, who keeps his directorial style simple in order to focus on character. Braff crafts a rather beautiful series of events and characters in a story that is semi-autobiographical to his early life as a twenty-something with little to no direction in life. These elements of Braff's life are mirrored into the life of protagonist Andrew Largeman, whose own aimlessness and emotional numbness is sure to be relatable to anyone who has faced a similar point in their life. Braff proves that he really understands this character not just through his screenplay, but through his performance as well: as the film, and Largeman as a character, progresses, Braff evolves from stoic to more outspoken, and is given multiple opportunities to prove his acting chops.
The film sounds like quite a downer, but there's a lot of laughs and all-around happiness to be had here though. While the subject matter deals with a lot of heavy themes, Braff also intersperses a healthy dose of humor into the film, most of which is quite deadpan but endlessly funny. It's never too outrageous, and blossoms organically from these characters and their situations. A lot of great moments come from interactions between Largeman and Natalie Portman's Sam, who couldn't be more different to the former. Her eccentric quirkiness sometimes rides the line of being a little too over-the-top, but Portman is simply too strong of an actress to let that happen, and she keeps her character grounded and very easy to relate to as well, especially towards the end of the film. On paper, Sam is a very manic pixie dream girl type, but Braff manages to subvert the trope by giving her a lot of development that, like Largeman's, has to evolve over the course of the film.
There's a reason why Garden State is a cult classic and a film that defines a certain generation of young adults. It's an impressive indie film with a lot of relatability, and a strong showcase for Zach Braff as an actor, a writer, and a director, the ultimate trifecta. Andrew Largeman may be emotionally numb, but you certainly won't be by the time credits roll: between the laughs and more somber emotional moments, there's sure to be something that will resonate with most anyone who has shared the same experiences of these characters.
Maybe it was because of being very indie and low budget, or maybe because it was Zach Braff's first attempt at writing and directing, but the movie had a lot of lost potential.
I found the overall concept to be very interesting. A 26 year old man has been wrongfully medicated since he was 10 and been completely numb to emotion because of it. His mom dies and he goes home to the funeral and doesn't take his medication while there, and begins to finally feel these lost emotions that he's been missing out on. If I were a producer and someone pitched that idea alone to me, I'd be captivated and hooked. Then, adding Natalie Portman as the nerdy, epileptic, pathological liar love interest to counter the weirdness of the protagonist....it's a great combo and they had good chemistry. For people being so used to seeing Natalie playing roles where she's awesome, this is a great role for her stepping outside of her comfort zone.
Anyway, halfway through the movie the plot took a turn and on the "last day" Zach Braff's character is in town it just goes downhill, almost like they didn't know how to make a good ending and just did a normal one.
Back to the concept of a medicated numb man finally experiencing emotion, I felt like there could have been a number of shots showing him finally coming up for air during these experiences when he is finally feeling again and crying, yet we don't see that. We see scenes showing how numb he is at the beginning of the movie, but none conveying the transformation.
In short....Garden State = Average movie. Amazing soundtrack.
Maybe it's the fact that I was born too late to consider it a masterpiece during its prime shelf life or maybe it's because I don't find quirky indie sparkle to be all too annoying unless whimsy becomes cloying - but I liked "Garden State", now-dated Coldplay songs, Manic Pixie Dream Girl-ness and all. I can understand the newfound hate - its tropes have become paralyzingly tired ever since Michael Cera's career died - but one has to remember that things weren't all cutely kooky before it crash landed into theaters, unless you count Hal Ashby's most eccentric moments of the 1970s. It stands as a likable product of the times, aged in its soundtrack but not in its emotional expression.
Writer/director Zach Braff, making his filmmaking debut, stars as Andrew Largeman, an immensely depressed 20-something living in Los Angeles in pursuit of a currently fledgling acting career. (His only screen credit consists of a retarded football player in a lackluster TV-movie). His heavily medicated world is rocked when his father (Ian Holm) brings news that his paraplegic mother has died, sending him back to New Jersey after nine years of intentionally staying far away from it. Emotionally numb, Andrew catches up with old friends with the enthusiasm of a cartoon donkey; he can hardly wait to escape his past once again and continue living miserably alone.
That all changes when he unintentionally meets Sam (Natalie Portman), an exuberant young woman with a habit of pathologically lying. With a charmingly outlandish outlook on life, she may be the bright spot needed to dig Andrew out of the pitch black well he's been living in for his entire existence; their mutual idiosyncrasies could repair themselves with a plentiful serving of cinematic love.
"Garden State" isn't perfect - it drifts back and forth between offbeat humor and sad-sack drama with a questionably twee exterior - but it has moments of relatable brilliance; thank God those moments are frequent instead of rare. Braff's sensitive but touchingly personal writing is vulnerable without being wimpy, funny without being crass; his direction, with just enough visual flair, travels along with impressive perceptiveness. His soundtrack has, in no doubt, aged, but we can't imagine a different sort of music playing as the characters reach thousands of mini-climaxes and discover themselves after years of believing the world had given up on them.
And while it may be Braff's vanity project, his acting is not what makes "Garden State" such an immediately likable film - its biggest asset is Portman, who brings a vivacious energy needed to make both Braff's Andrew, and the film's, mood go from blaring gloominess to infectious hope. She is lovable when everything else threatens to be a major downer. So say what you will about "Garden State": it works; the dusty soundtrack is as fitting as the inclusion of Portman's archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The backlash makes a certain sort of sense, but it's much too harsh when we live in a world that Iggy Azalea also inhabits. Don't run away in fear of incurring the wrath of Tumblr users - see this early-2000s classic. It'll be worth it.