U.S. Release Date: July 28, 2004
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Director: Zach Braff
Writer: Zach Braff
Producer: Pamela Abdy, Dan Halsted, Michael Shamberg (executive), Stacey Sher (executive)
Composer: Chad Fischer
Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm
Running Time: 1 hour and 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (for language, drug use and a scene of sexuality)

Scrub No More
by Lane Ford

Strong performances, subtle direction and an understated sense of humor redeem Zach Braff's Garden State from ordinary to interesting moviemaking. Although the plot and themes meander, this is a quiet, psychological picture of the indie breed that draws the audience into the experience of its characters; yet unlike most of its kind, "into the experience" is a place one is not loathe to go.

On the unexpected death of his mother, Andrew Largeman (Braff) returns to his home in New Jersey for the first time in a decade. Modestly successful as a Los Angeles actor, Largeman must face a world from which he has been estranged. As the story unfolds, we learn the secrets of his past, the sources of his well-medicated numbness and the dissociated parts of his psychology. Through new and rekindled relationships, Largeman strives to gain control of his existence. Among his fellow travelers are Sam (Natalie Portman), a young woman with demons of her own, and Mark, an old high school buddy cum gravedigger.

Garden State's central conflict is strictly psychological: Andrew Largeman struggles to feel. Brilliantly, the movie brings the audience as close as possible to the interior of Largeman's mind, aptly conveying his existential anesthesia as well as his fight to overcome it and, in the end, the redemption of doing so. With his performance, Braff manages to make thoughts as clear as dialogue. As the writer, he also allows the character to express himself—and eloquently—when his internal struggle is complete.

In the broader scope of things, whatever thematic point Garden State tries to make—something about an "infinite abyss"—misses its mark for a lack of integration with a plot. One gathers that there is supposed to be some Camus-ish truth about shouting into a void (specifically, a vast, rock quarry) that makes neither practical nor projected sense, except as an expression of Largeman's overdue emotional release.

The movie does endeavor to prove that "originality"—man's desire to be unique—is a valid psychological need. But it defines originality arbitrarily—in the manner of being a "free spirit," i.e., Natalie Portman doing a bizarre dance that "nobody's ever done before"—rather than in terms of realistic achievement. So the emotional catharsis Largeman reaches is qualified by our knowledge that at its base is a poorly-identified "truth" about manifesting self-esteem. His final question to Portman, "What do we do?" portends, at best, for prolonged confusion. He has defeated his internal demons, but not his significant, external ones.

Stylistically, Garden State is exquisite. The direction is as elegant as a slight of hand trick; the story is told as if it simply appears. With the mastery of a veteran, Braff indulges in no self-conscious artsy-ness or heavy-handed effect. His comic and dramatic timing are equally impeccable; the movie wraps itself around its characters and situations without choking the life out of them.

In all, there is more to look forward to from this ambitious, young writer/director/star; Garden State is a remarkable beginning.

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