Garden State (2004) — Pulling out of depression with the help of indie music and Natalie Portman

“This is your one opportunity to do something that no one has ever done before and that no one will copy throughout human existence.”

Drew’s rating: I can’t believe Braff joins the ranks of the Jersey elite — Sinatra, Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Smith — before me. Damn him!

Drew’s review: Okay, I gotta be honest right off the bat — there was pretty much zero chance I was going to dislike this flick. Scrubs is just about my favorite show on TV these days, so I’m familiar with Zach Braff’s comedic potential, and hell, it’s a movie about my home state… what’s not to love? But I’ll confess to having some doubts beforehand — sure, Braff’s funny, but would he be AS funny without John McGinley calling him girls’ names every five minutes? Could he handle the weightier subject matter inherent in this type of independent film? Fortunately for all concerned, it turns out I needn’t have worried for a second: Garden State is a very funny, sweet-but-not-saccharine movie that accomplishes most of what it sets out to do, and promises big things on the horizon for its up-and-coming creator.

The film has drawn quite a few comparisons — both favorable and critical — to classic coming-of-age flick The Graduate, with a plot adjusted for modern sensibilities. (Don’t know why; there’s just something timeless about getting it on with your girlfriend’s hot mom, isn’t there?) In brief, Braff plays Andrew Largeman — AKA “Large,” and wouldn’t we all just love to have THAT nickname, eh gents? — an aspiring actor living in LA and doped up 24/7 on a nice assortment of mind-numbing drugs, prescribed by his psychiatrist father (Ian “Bilbo Baggins” Holm) ever since a certain “incident” dating back to childhood. The fun begins, ironically enough, when he receives word that his mother has died and heads home to Jersey for her funeral, leaving his meds behind. As Large gradually comes out of his chemically-induced stupor, he begins to feel things again and reconnect with the life he hasn’t exerted any real control over since he was nine.

Enter Sam, the cute, funny, extremely quirky girl we all used to wish we could meet in real life. She helps Large gain some much-needed perspective and just might be the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him… but can he get his crap together in time to act on it? Or will he be beaten to death after accidentally pissing off Tony Soprano? Only one way to find out!

People have been raving about Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Sam, and I’m here to tell you right now, she deserves every last bit of that praise. I have some vague recollection that she might once have been in some war movie about stars or something, but forget it — THIS is the role you’re going to be remembering her in. Playing that kind of amusingly eccentric, borderline crazy character can be risky, but Portman turns in a seriously nuanced performance, making her character believable, funny, and appropriately tragic when the need arises. Braff, as mentioned earlier, gets to flex his acting muscles a bit and rises well to the occasion, while Ian Holm doesn’t have much screen time but makes the most of it.

Meanwhile, Peter Sarsgaard shows us the darker, more realistic side of Jersey stoners — sure, Jay and Silent Bob are hilarious, but what would they be like in real life? For better or for worse, Sarsgaard’s Mark is probably not far from the truth. Then there’s the final main character, New Jersey itself, and Braff does a terrific job of capturing the essence of the Garden State. This feeling is probably best conveyed in a scene that has Large, Sam, and Mark trekking to a boat sitting on a rock at the bottom of a quarry, inhabited by a very friendly, cheerful family — it’s just the perfect mix of the bizarre, the funny, and the slightly creepy that epitomizes Jersey. Nice.

I didn’t like everything, of course. The heart-to-heart between Large and his father near the end was just a little too heavy-handed for my tastes; I know it needed to be deep and weighty and emotional, and Large’s anger was definitely palpable, but the outcome just seemed a bit too forced. And the ending isn’t winning any points for originality, obviously. Also, I had a hard time trying to like the character of Mark, or understand why Large and Sam would be hanging out with him; call me a prude, but I kind of draw the line at graverobbing and shoplifting from stores as a matter of habit. I know, I know, my little hang-ups.

Finally, there’s a LOT of symbolism in the movie, not all of it subtle. That can be both helpful and cumbersome, but unsurprising for a debut film, it comes across as just a tad overstated. I’m confident that in future films, Braff will learn to balance it out, but it’s slightly jarring this go around.

In the end, I think the bulk of your enjoyment is going to rest on how you feel about Braff’s character. My girlfriend claims she hated every second of it, yet she was highly complimentary of the casting, cinematography, dialogue, humor, basically everything… except she felt Large was a whiny, cynical, self-absorbed jerk until the last three minutes of the movie, and thus couldn’t stand watching him for the preceding 90. On the other hand, I found myself relating to him in a very real way — no small feat, since my life couldn’t be less like his if I tried — and as a result found a lot to identify with and enjoy in his personal journey. What she saw as him never cracking a smile, I interpreted as not knowing how to react to anything because of being doped up for 17 years. I’d venture to guess that if you’re a cult fan, you’re more likely to share my point of view; but even so, be forewarned that the film is intricately tied to Large’s character and his emotional state — if you don’t like him, odds are you won’t like the movie in general. Fair warning.

A final note to Zach Braff, on the off chance he should ever happen to read this. Mr. Braff, if you continue to make movies of this high caliber and with this much cool, quirky fun, I foresee a long and very healthy relationship between you and Mutant Reviewers. Please, keep it up!

Kyle’s rating: Seeing this film results in a burning urge to buy the soundtrack. You will buy it!

Kyle’s review: Zach Braff is brilliant on the brilliant Scrubs. Natalie Portman is super-spunky-hot. Put them together in a film, with Braff directing and personally compiling an incredible soundtrack, and you wouldn’t think you could go wrong. And you’d pretty much be right. Even if you’re dealing with New Jersey (no offense, Drew!).

Garden State is a film for lovers of cultish thoughtful personal growth films, made by lovers of cultish thoughtful personal growth films. Like Saw, Braff’s film wears its influences on its sleeves, though Garden State does a much better job of paying homage while simultaneously distinguishing itself as an unique addition to the “lost soul is spiritually reborn and snags hot and quirky significant other / set to alt-alternative/independent soundtrack” genre.

Really, where Garden State succeeds is in its tone, acting, and dialogue. I know that sounds like common sense, but those strengths manage to utterly distract you from the weaker parts of the movie. I mean, the plot is truthfully so generic that most of the films of the ’80s used it as a template, and if you don’t know what’s going to happen in the grand scheme of things with all the characters by the end, you must not have seen too many ’80s movies in your life. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

Thankfully, Garden State lives and breathes in the moments between life’s big events, and celebrates the dull monotony of life as a template to have fun in. The morals are universal and should be drilled into your head from friends and family and Garbage songs (stop to smell the roses, don’t let a soulmate pass you by, avoid overmedication whenever possible), and the movie wisely sidesteps the usual dreary cinematic landmarks (death scenes, health crises, screamed family argument) to keep things nice and lightweight. The destination is never in doubt, so we’re free to enjoy the journey, and that’s where the fun is anyway. If you need crazy plot twists or Nicholsonian overacting, look elsewhere, but if you want a walking-and-talking sad-yet-uplifting album’s version of reality, Garden State is for you!

Braff is excellent, a man virtually untouched by tragedy initially but willing to take the first step out of the listless fog engulfing his first 26 years of life, and finding the world is so much better without lithium. Portman is excellent, a young woman with a reason to wear a helmet and a determination not to let it get her down, who finds Braff’s character to be the perfect ying to her yang. The other cast is stellar, with lots of the usual independent film suspects doing their usual impeccable acting work and coming close to stealing the show but choosing not to and letting us know in their demeanor that they could have if they wanted to, but they wanted Braff and Portman to shine. And shine they do. Wow. If seeing them grow together doesn’t make you appreciative of your own love match (or desperate to make one), then I apologize for your damaged heart and I’ll buy you a beer if we should meet.

Garden State is awesome; no question about it. Portman reclaims her quirkily-talented high status, and Braff announces that he’s not just sitcom-funny, he’s enormously-talented as well. And that soundtrack is fantastic; I left the theater and practically ran over to the record store to buy it (the Paul Simon song put me over the top, and made “buying soundtrack” triumph over “go eat some burritos” on my to-do list). Don’t be thrown off by its essentially quirky nature (it’s quirky-quirky-quirky!) and pay attention to the subtle moments to pick up all the character stuff you can, and learn to enjoy the journey over the destination. It’s the secret of life, don’t you know?

Nancy’s rating: I’m in a quarry.

Nancy’s review: This is probably the hardest review I’ve ever had to write. It makes me feel so incredibly dorky to explain my love for this. The majority of my other reviews have been cute and quirky and lalala (L.A. Story, Danny Deckchair) or have made it really easy for me to explain my love for them (Batman). But Garden State means a lot to me and I feel like a dork talking about it.

I feel like THAT girl who’s like, “Oh. Garden State is ever so amazing. Here, let us sip coffee, listen to indie radio wearing emo black glasses and talk of intellectual matter.” Black glasses are wicked cute, and I’m sorry if you wear them, and they are sincerely stylin’ and way cool, but you guys know the girl I’m talking about. I know one too many, and I just don’t want to come off like I’m riding the latest hipster trend. It’s tricky not to do that while accurately explaining how good this movie is to me. I wish this review could just be a video of someone asking me “What’s your favorite movie Nancy?” and I say “Garden State” and then they say “Really? Even more than Batman?” and I smile sadly and say “…ya know what? Yeah.”

I’m going to start talking about it now. Garden State is, by definition, the typical Nancy movie. It’s cute and it’s clever. It’s quirky and sweet with interesting dialogue and in one scene there’s a knight. But it’s different to me. For one, the quirks don’t seem placed there for sheer oddity or for the viewers to slap their foreheads in tweeked-out quirky glee, saying “Haha, kooky Garden State. Oh, you!” The little weird things in it seem like the normal weird things that come in and out of life – dogs scratching themselves, horrible women singing at funerals, shirts that match the wallpaper, and all of that. It doesn’t strike me as that odd, it just seems to accurately represent how strange existing is sometimes, a lot of the time. Secondly…yeah, that’s it. I think it’s a real good representation of life. Not even exactly what happens in there, but just the feel of the movie makes me say “Wow. I feel like I know what things are about now.”

The characters are literally the most realistic I’ve ever seen. Not just the main ones. Not even just the secondary leads. Every excess character in this movie I’ve seen, and some I know personally. I know the cop who pulled Large over, he had a fling with a friend of mine a few summers ago. I know the dude who worked in the hardware store, except in my life, he works in a grocery store. I know Mark. The doctor Large sees is my dentist. The ‘Three Times A Lady’ woman is every horrible aunt ever. Even the secretary is just like every secretary I’ve ever met, but exactly like the one over the mountain at the specialist doctors office.

I know this movie is flawed. But I don’t think it is. It’s like I’m completely aware it’s not the perfect movie, but for me, it is. It makes me feel like life makes sense, a little. It shows the world as f-ed up as I see it sometimes and it also really stressing how mind-blowingly beautiful it can be at times. It’s not pretentious, it’s not loud or dramatic. I’m trying real hard to not sound dorky with this, so to sum up, in it’s simplicity, I find life=good.

I feel like I could go on for eight hours and be embarrassed later by using words like “magnificent” “perfect” and “absolutely necessary for me to exist”. So I’m gonna quit before I do that.

“What do you do? You laugh. I’m not saying I don’t cry, but in between… I laugh, and I realize how silly it is to take anything in life too seriously. I’m not saying I don’t cry, but in between, I laugh. And I look forward to a good cry. It feels pretty good”

This is probably my favorite movie. You really should watch it. You might not dig it as much as me, but I hope you’ll be able to see at least why it makes me feel so nice.

Courtney’s rating: Gander is a funny word

Courtney’s review: Before I review this, let’s have a gander at my life, m’kay? I was born and raised in Jersey; I like indie music; Zach Braff is, in my opinion, one of the wittiest men currently in entertainment; I adore Natalie Portman as a dramatic actress; and my all-time favorite movie (evereverever, undisputed) is The Graduate. So imagine my excitement when I found out that Braff was writing, directing, and acting in a movie with Portman and a butt-load of indie tracks called Garden State and it was being compared to The Graduate. I mean, talk about “best build-up ever!”

So, I saw it. And I… did not like it one bit. Okay, that’s a bit harsh. It had its moments; eccentric characters and existential crises. That’s all good. But to be honest, I was really bored with it. Yet all of my peers regard this film as “the most important representation of our generation.” So, what’s wrong with me?

I think I’ve figured it out. The Graduate changed my life: it gave me a whole new philosophy and introduced me to the awesomeness that is Simon and Garfunkel (hehe, Garfunkel… that’s the name of an epic hero if I ever heard one). So after much deliberation, I decided that perhaps my disappointment with Garden State lies in the fact that I’d seen The Graduate about a hundred times before it came out. So nothing felt that new or fresh to me. On the other hand, all the other kids who loved it had never seen the ’67 classic, so it was all new and exciting for them, and this was the one that changed their lives. But as mine was already changed, there was not much for me to feel excited about. That makes sense, right?

Anyway, I’m not particularly fond of the comparison between the movies. The Graduate was honest, a fantasy-turned-nightmare-turned-dream-come-true. Ben Braddock is a reflection of the desires and despairs of every young adult, and his experiences may be different from anyone else’s, but his emotions are relatable. But I just think that so much of Garden State is overly contrived, peculiar just for the sake of being peculiar. It begs the audience to find it edgy and amusing, and obviously many, probably most people did. But I just couldn’t relate; I couldn’t find a shred of truth that hadn’t been revealed to me before, and that’s what I was looking for.

I guess what it really boils down to is the hype I felt before seeing it. I was so prepped for a revelation in celluloid form, and I didn’t get it, so I instantly put a negative stamp over the title in my head. But at the same time, I think it’s a pretty fantastic directorial debut for Braff. He shows a lot of promise, and this definitely wasn’t like anything I’d seen him do on Scrubs, so points for stepping outside the box. Portman wasn’t super fantastic, but she wasn’t half-bad either. Peter Sarsgaard (Sarsgaard… Saaaaaarrrrrsgaaaaaaaarrrrrrd… another epic name) is always good, and for his part, he did not disappoint me here. The soundtrack is Amazing with a capitol A. And I did emit a few chuckles and other appropriate emotions. So it couldn’t have been as bad as I remember. Maybe it deserves a second viewing.

So, in summation, I’d say that I didn’t like this movie, but I’d definitely give it another shot. And that’s always a good sign.

Didja notice?

  • Kinda weird seeing Braff as the guy IN the x-ray machine, instead of standing beside it wearing scrubs.
  • If I (Drew) should ever happen to die, please don’t anybody sing “Three Times A Lady” at my funeral.
  • Yeah, one of my freshman roommates could speak Klingon too. He frightened me. A lot.
  • Fire arrows = way cool.
  • Dude, I need that motorcycle now. Who wants to ride in the sidecar?

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