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Posted by Aaron West, 8/2/04

Garden State
Directed by Zach Braff
Starring Zach Braff, Peter Sarsgaard, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm
Running Time: 109 minutes

Ladies and Gentleman, meet Zach Braff, also known as the "guy from Scrubs". What most Scrubs fans probably don't know, is that Braff was a filmmaker before he was an actor. He graduated from Northwestern with a film degree, and constructed several shorts during his time there, many of which were well-received throughout the American Film Festival circuit. Scrubs turned out to be a launching pad for him to get his film made, and voila, we have Garden State, his feature film directorial debut.

Andrew Largeman, known to his friends as Large, has been medicated with Lithium since he was a small child. Now, seven years after his last visit, he must return home to face the burial of his mother. Only he accidentally leaves his medication at home. Not only does he have to contend with his emotions (or lack thereof) regarding his mother's death, but he also has face life for the first time with the raincoat off, without the protection of his medication. Garden State is Large's belated coming of age story.

Large has made a name for himself while he's been away. Okay, maybe not a name, but a face at least, having gained instant notoriety for his starring role as the "retarded quarterback" in an unnamed feature film. While Large has achieved moderate success, his friends have underachieved. His best friend digs graves for a living, while other friends have gained stable employment in illustrious industries such as fast foodm or law enforcement. Save for the gravedigger and a quirky inventor, all of his friends wear uniforms to work, one of which is an iron suit. Don't ask; you'll see. Yet, even though these friends may appear as if they're struggling to get by, they seem much more comfortable with themselves and their surroundings than their good ol' friend Large. Through his old friends and a new female friend (Natalie Portman), Zach begins his journey outside of himself.

Sounds like a great drama, right? Not quite. The problem with Garden State is that it doesn't know what it is. The premise is strong enough to work as a drama, but isn't given the leeway to do so. It is continually interrupted by comedic moments that are completely irrelevant to the premise, the theme, or the narrative. They exist only to carry the viewer from dramatic scene to scene. I don't mind mixing comedy with narrative, and many directors have been able to strike a balance between the two (recently Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola), but they have used the comedy to advance the narrative rather than distract from it. While the comedy is one of the film's downfalls, it also happens to be genuinely funny, which makes the film more endearing, but frustratingly so. The funnier moments quickly fade from memory, as they have no thematic context to cling onto. Chalk this up to being simply a rookie mistake on Braff's part.

Even with the disjointed narrative, there is plenty of merit to be found with the film. One of Garden State's major strengths is its visual style. Everyone who downloaded and watched the popular teaser trailer knows that this is an extremely picturesque movie. Braff proves that while he may be a novice filmmaker, he has an accomplished eye for framing beauty. Every scene looks good, which is even more impressive considering the miniscule budget of the film. Braff disproves the theory that indies have to look like an indie, and overachieves from a production standpoint. In this respect, he shows great potential as a filmmaker.

I can't say that Braff's acting is nearly as impressive as his direction. Don't get me wrong, he's no Keanu Reeves or Freddie Prinze, Jr., and his character is supposed to be somewhat of a downer, but Braff fails to effective convey his character's highs or lows. Even during his most euphoric, he looks like a guy who is just forcing himself to beam a smile or yell really loud. As much as I admire his multi-talent, I wish he would have cast someone else in the lead role, perhaps Sarsgaard who shows in Garden State what he showed in Shattered Glass, that he nails his high and low points, and Large is a character with plenty of both. Unfortunately neither he nor Natalie Portman are given enough character depth to adequately showcase their talents, but they both manage to give memorable, if bland, performances.

This review would not be complete without me saying a few words about the soundtrack. When Braff first pitched his project, he supplied a hipster indie-pop mix CD to any listening producer. This was the music that inspired Braff and most of it made its way into the film, The soundtrack is unique, and yes, even "cool". It will inevitably turn on a whole new world of fans to innovative new bands such as The Shins and Frou Frou, and it does provide the film with a personality of its own. At one point, Natalie Portman's character even identifies and praises one of the musicians featured on the soundtrack, The Shins, claiming that their song New Slang will change Large's life. Like some of the comedic moments, this also happens to be out of nowhere, but it can be forgiven because it draws the viewer's attention to the music of the film. This is the music of the suburban, white American youth, and it's nice to see the characters connected to such a prominent non-diegetic element.

Garden State could have been a much better film. There's plenty to like, such as the innovative, creative direction, the hip soundtrack, and the moving premise, but plenty to hate too, like the scattered, fragmented narrative, and a horrid ending, which I won't go into for obvious reasons. It still does show plenty of promise for future Braff projects. Even with its flaws, Garden State is an enjoyable two hours and definitely worth a look.

Score: 6/10