“We’ll probably go up there after we bury your mom,” gravedigger Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) remarks glibly to his former high school friend Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff), who has returned to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. After a nine-year absence in LA, (where after a stint playing a retarded football player in a made-for-TV movie, he’s been waiting tables at a Vietnamese restaurant) this is Andrew’s homecoming.
The line passes as wry understatement in a movie full of understatement, where the surreal commingles effortlessly with the familiar, and in which bizarre conceits have a strange way of emphasizing Andrew’s burgeoning pain. Garden State is a beautiful piece of filmmaking about self-realization that’s only weakness is its over-earnestness, but beneath the sight gags and the movie’s inherent quirkiness, even that is easy to overlook.
The movie opens with Andrew lying catatonic, flat on his back, in a bed as his father informs him — via an answering machine — that his mother has drowned in the bathtub. After her funeral, Andrew reconnects with his old high school friends, and in a series of deadpan vignettes, presents himself as severely numbed and emotionally damaged, owing largely to a 17-year pharmaceutical haze. Andrew, however, has left his meds in L.A. so that he can appropriately grieve. As his old friends help to coax him to slowly return to his life, Andrew awakens from his anesthetized existence and, for the first time, begins to feel the pain of maturity.
He’s helped along in this coming-of-age journey by the effervescent and winsome Sam, played by Natalie Portman, who seems to be playing an overly idiosyncratic 20-something-year-old version of her character in Beautiful Girls. As much as this movie has been compared to this generation’s The Graduate, there seems to be something to Braff’s decision to cast Portman, who lifts Andrew out of his disaffection in much the same way Portman did for Timothy Hutton when he returned to his small-town home after a long absence. Garden State, however, is more encompassing, and, unlike Beautiful Girls, succeeds even when Portman is not in a scene.
Garden State does play homage to The Graduate, which leaves its imprint all over the film — Andrew numbly wanders through a dystopian suburban landscape, struggling with his impending adulthood. Still, Braff’s directing style owes more to Wes Anderson than Mike Nichols, with its visual poetry, its eccentricity, and its brilliant choice of music, including the wink-wink selection of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.”
The situations in Garden State often feel otherworldly or absurd, but the emotional ache of the movie taps into universal feelings. Braff, who also wrote and directed the movie, comes up with some brilliant lines, both cheeky and poignant. At times the movie’s cleverness threatens to sidetrack it, but, in the end, its warmth finds a way to sneak up on you.
Unfortunately, the movie is flawed by its finale. The major theme running throughout Garden is that we should have the courage to open ourselves up to the pain of our lives. Instead of leaving the audience with that bittersweet pain, however, Braff gives us a tacked-on feel-good ending which goes against that grain. It is the one quibble I had with Braff’s masterful debut, but even that isn’t enough to mar the heartbreaking brilliance that is Garden State.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
Garden State / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()