Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 8/15/04 w/ Additional Edits.
The Sundance Film Festival has always been known as a festival that gives the spotlight to new up-and-coming filmmakers as they rise to the world of cinema. In 2004, TV actor Zach Braff of the show Scrubs released his directorial feature-length debut film, which he also wrote, and starred in entitled Garden State. A big hit at the festival, Garden State is a quirky comedy-drama about an actor from L.A. named Andrew Largeman who returns to New Jersey for the funeral of his mother. After years of being in a medicated state, Largeman wakes up from his monotone, mind-numbing state where he meets a quirky young woman while trying to make amends with his psychiatrist father and old school friends. Starring Braff in the lead role of Andrew Largeman with a cast that includes Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ron Liebman, Jean Smart, Method Man, and Ian Holm. Garden State is a majestic film that is rich in its quirkiness and compassion.
For the 26-year old Andrew Largeman, life has been nothing but one monotone, numbing world as he is often in a trance. Even when he is doing his acting, he's often in a state, including one moment as a waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant. Then one day, his father and psychiatrist Dr. Gideon Largeman (Ian Holm) calls him that Andrew's paraplegic mother had died, drowning in her bathtub. Andrew returns to his home in New Jersey to attend the funeral where he sees his old friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) working as a gravedigger with pal Dave (Alex Burns). Mark invites him to a party where Andrew is forced to deal with relatives and his estranged father, who wants to talk to him, especially about his medication that Andrew had forgotten to bring for his depressing state of mind. Later that night, driving his grandfather's Army motorcycle, an officer stops him who turns to be former school pal Kenny (Michael Weston) who is surprised to see him. Andrew goes to the party where he meets Jesse (Armando Riesco), who got rich off of inventing Velcro that makes no sound where Andrew took ecstasy and began to see an orgy of drugs and sex.
The next morning at Mark's house, he meets another old friend named Tim (Jim Parsons) and Mark's mother Carol (Jean Smart). Tim has become a knight for the Medieval Times restaurant franchise while Carol often tells Mark to work on his plans to become a real estate agent but Mark isn't interested except in getting stoned. Andrew leaves to attend a therapy session his father had signed on for him. Andrew comes across a humping dog and a quirky, pathological liar named Sam (Natalie Portman) who recognized from TV as a mentally challenged quarterback. The talkative Sam keeps talking to him as she gives him a chance to listen to the Shins. For the first time ever, Andrew gets out of his state as he meets a psychiatrist named Dr. Cohen (Ron Liebman) who checks his prognosis and thinks Andrew is just feeling fine although he is wondering what just happened after Andrew stop taking his pills.
Andrew sees Sam after his session where he takes her to Jesse's house and then to her home where he meets her mother Olivia (Ann Dowd) and her adopted African brother Titembay (Ato Essandoh). Andrew is intrigued by Sam's quirky personality as she admits to lying a lot and during a burial for one of her dead hamsters, Andrew talks about his mother and her death as Sam is moved by the fact that he had a hard time trying to reveal his sadness after being numb for years. Deciding to stay in New Jersey for a few more days, Andrew tries to avoid his father for a conversation only to hang out with Sam, who gets embarrassed by her mom over a video of her skating in a crocodile costume, and with Mark. Andrew and Sam join Mark in swimming in Jesse's pool where later that night, Andrew reveals how his mom became paraplegic and how he got heavily medicated. Andrew and Sam are left alone with Andrew having a few more days left before returning home.
Mark, who has been happy with Andrew's return wants to give him a going away present while presenting him his collection of Desert Storm cards which he hopes will be worth a lot of money. Mark decides to get Andrew his present with Sam as Mark scams money at a convenience store where Andrew meets another old schoolmate Karl Benson (Geoffrey Arend) who presumed that Andrew had committed suicide. Andrew isn't sure what Mark is trying to do as they go to a hotel where they meet a sleazy, underground porno organizer named Diego (Method Man) who gives Mark direction to meet Albert (Denis O'Haye) and wife Faye (Debbon Ayer). Mark accompanies Sam and Andrew into an abandoned canyon where they meet Albert, who has these weird theories of the world. Mark gives Andrew his present where Andrew is finally forced to confront his own life and father while trying to decide if he wants to return to Los Angeles or stay in New Jersey.
Presenting itself as a quirky film with some funny moments in sad situations or vice versa, Garden State in some ways plays up to the offbeat world of 1970s filmmaker Hal Ashby. While Braff only recalls a bit of Ashby's world, he does manage to bring a vision that isn't just heartbreaking but also absurd and compassionate. With a wonderful screenplay that is filled with witty dialogue and strange yet sympathetic characters, the film's story works in all levels, even in its love story between Andrew and Sam. Braff as a director is truly a visionary with his eye-wielding direction where he brings in wonderful crane shots and spectacular camera movements that is complemented by cinematographer Lawrence Sher.
Sher brings a colorful, dreamy photography that gives richness of the film with help from production designer Judy Becker and art director Laura Ballinger, notably a scene where Andrew's shirt matches a wallpaper design. Another great aspect to some of Braff's direction, especially in faster shot sequences is editor Myron I. Kernstein who helps brings a wonderful pace and crafted editing style that helps Garden State be wonderful in its technical achievements.
One great aspect of the film is its dramatic, acoustic music score from composer Chad Fisher who brings that Ashby quality of offbeat drama and comedy. The film's music really makes Garden State a gem of a film. With cuts from Coldplay, the Shins, Colin Hay of Men at Work, Remy Zero, Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel, Frou Foru, Zero 7, and a hilarious cover of Lionel Richie's Three Times A Lady in the funeral scene. It's by far the best film soundtrack of the year and credit goes to Braff, Fisher, and music supervisors Buck Damon and Amanda Scheer-Demme.
Then you have the film's amazing cast with great small performances from Jim Parsons, Alex Burns, Michael Weston, Armando Riesco, Ann Dowd, Ato Essandoh, Geoffrey Arend, Denis O'Hare, Debbon Ayer, and Jackie Hoffman as Andrew’s Aunt Sylvia, who created that shirt that matched the wallpaper. Method Man is funny in his small performance along with Ron Liebman as the quirky, unorthodox Dr. Cohen, and Jean Smart as the loving but stern Carol who is frustrated at Mark's lack of ambition while is willing to believe anything that will get her out of New Jersey. Ian Holm is excellent in the role of Andrew's father Gideon. Holm brings a performance that carries guilt inside as he desperately tries to talk with his son but is having a hard time balancing the role of father and shrink. In the final confrontation, we see Holm at his most restraint where he and Braff have great tension together.
Of the film's supporting cast, no one is as good or as charming as Peter Sarsgaard in the role of Mark. Sarsgaard's character is supposed to be this sleazy, cunning friend who takes a lot of pride in not taking anyone's money, even Andrew's. Sarsgaard brings a likeability and sympathy to his performance as a guy who just has small dreams and doesn't really want to live up to any ambitions or be a failure in favor of simplicity. Sarsgaard has wonderful scenes with Braff and Portman as he proves himself to be one of the best supporting actors in the industry and it's the supporting players that really help carry the leads and story. Sarsgaard is just one of the best supporting actors right now who can be a leading actor but seems comfortable as well in the supporting role.
Natalie Portman meanwhile, brings her most fulfilling performance since her 1994 debut role in Luc Besson's Leon-The Professional. Here, Portman brings a quirkiness and radiance to a performance that is always wonderful to watch. Portman seems comfortable and relaxed in a role where she lets loose and even act like an idiot at times for sheer fun while she manages to display her brilliant mastery in restrained, subtle dramatic performances. With Braff, the two carry a wonderful chemistry that is funny and sad in some sequences where you root for both of them with Portman just being the loveable oddball. This is by far Portman's most complex and charismatic performance for the young actress.
Zach Braff is a wonderful leading man in easily one of the year's best performances. Even for those who haven't seen him in the show Scrubs won't really need to because in this role, he really brings in an engaging, troubled performance as Andrew. Braff doesn't make his character pathetic or plain idiotic but someone who is just lost after years of being in a trance. Braff makes Andrew someone we love and feel sorry for, even with his flaws. Braff is also brilliant with scenes with other actors in the way he reacts to their quirkiness and oddball activities while being the butt of the jokes where he would have words all over his body. This is definitely Braff's breakthrough role into the world of films.
***Updated 3/25/05, DVD Tidbits***
The DVD to Garden State that is shown in its anamorphic widescreen format of 2:35:1 along with 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby for English and Spanish along with subtitles and captions in English, Spanish, and French. The DVD includes a Fox Searchlight trailer to Danny Boyle's 2004 family film Millions along with a promo for the acclaimed soundtrack to Garden State. The special features includes a 30-minute making-of featurette that includes Braff and his cast and crew where Peter Sarsgaard got into character by practicing the guitar. The making-of feature shows some intimate moments with the crew and cast, notably Braff, Sarsgaard, and Natalie Portman who shows her humorous side more while doing takes and how the motorcycle often doesn't work.
The DVD also includes a 3-minute outtakes and blooper reel where the cast flub their lines including Sarsgaard, Braff, and Portman as she tries to do a funny New Jersey accent and the hilarious outtakes of the humping dog along with a hilarious scene of Sarsgaard almost fainting during a take with Method Man that got Natalie to go into hysterical laughter. The DVD also includes 16 deleted and extended scenes that features optional commentary from Braff, cinematographer Lawrence Sher, production designer Judy Becker, and editor Myron Kerstein. Some of the deleted scenes included extended scenes of the funeral party that featured many of Braff's relatives including his father, an audition scene, extended scenes with Portman and Sarsgaard including the ark scene. The best scene that Braff didn’t want to cut but did for pacing issues was an earlier confrontational scene with him and Ian Holm where Holm delivers a great performance but Braff felt like several of the deleted scene, it was pacing that forced him to cut the scene.
The DVD also includes two audio commentary tracks from Zach Braff. One with Sher, Becker, and Kerstein is more technical driven on talking about some of the details of the films but it's mostly straightforward and relaxed since they’re having fun talking during the commentary while Braff asks Becker who's a better director to work with, him or Ang Lee (since she's credited on production design for Lee's upcoming Brokeback Mountain). The overall filmmakers' commentary is one of the most fun and detailed of commentaries. The second commentary Braff is in is with Natalie Portman which is more fun than the other commentary. Portman not only seemed relaxed but also says some of the funniest things in the commentary with Braff as she talks about her New Jersey-Jewish accent and her quirky approach to the character. She also complains how weird her ears are and how Method Man was nervous in cursing in front of her when she didn't seem to mind since she's a fan of Meth and the Wu-Tang Clan.
While the DVD doesn't include the teaser or full trailer to the film or the Anatomy of a Scene special on the film from Sundance Channel, the Garden State DVD overall is an excellent DVD that the film's fans will love.
***End of DVD Tidbits***
Garden State is truly a majestic film helmed by the multi-talented Zach Braff with a wonderful film crew and cast that include Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, and Ian Holm in amazing performances. With a great soundtrack as its accompaniment, Garden State is indeed one of 2004's best films with Braff being a triple-threat in the acting, writing, and directing field as he created one of the best debut features ever by a new director. Sundance truly found a winner with Garden State as this film has something for everyone, it's romantic, it's funny, it's dramatic, and it's strange. In the end, Garden State is a wonderfully complex film that marks the emergence of a new visionary.
(C) thevoid99 2010