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Monday, June 17

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Airbags

3 of 5 stars
Directed by Zach Braff.
Starring Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm and Peter Sarsgaard.

In Garden State, which is in limited release and opened locally last weekend, writer-director Zach Braff (from TV's "Scrubs") stars as Andrew Largeman, a.k.a. "Large," an actor in LA (which is to say, waiter) who goes back home to New Jersey for the first time in nine years to attend his mother's funeral. In the four days there, he gets back in touch with some of his old high school friends, including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a gravedigging pothead who still lives at home with his dope-smoking mother (Jean Smart); meets Sam (Natalie Portman), the compulsive liar he falls for; and deals with his father (Ian Holm), a psychiatrist who has blamed him for the accident that paralyzed his mother years before and, as a result, kept Andrew's brain numbed with lithium, Zoloft and a host of other drugs.

A flawed, but still highly enjoyable first film, Garden State invites comparisons to The Graduate with its melancholy tone and the use of a Simon & Garfunkel tune in its soundtrack (Garden State features "The Only Living Boy in New York"). But while I think The Graduate is an incredibly well crafted film, I'm one of the apparently few people the story leaves cold. The whole idea that anyone in the world finds its creepy, stalkerrific third act romantic in the slightest disturbs the hell out of me, but ignoring the plot, the film has a number of smaller moments that I enjoyed well enough. As with The Graduate, it is the smaller moments in Garden State that prove to be its strongest, most of which would suffer from explanation, such as an early shot of Braff walking through a bathroom and setting off each automatic faucet as he walks by.

Not all of its rewarding moments are the many quirky visual gags that populate the first half or so of the film. In a short scene between Sam and Andrew in a swimming pool, Andrew delivers a sweetly poignant line: "You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn't really your home anymore? That idea of home is gone. Maybe that's all family really is. A group of people who miss the same imaginary place." Unfortunately, some of the time Garden State attempts to dispense its wisdom, the film reminds me more strongly of -- and hits as many false notes as -- Good Will Hunting than The Graduate. Both films are written by actors either too young or na´ve to instill their movies with the depth or enlightenment that they aspire to, not to mention perhaps too concerned with showcasing their own acting chops than with crafting a solid story around them.

But while the end product isn't quite as convincing as it ought to be, Garden State's uneven script is elevated immeasurably by Braff's impressive visual style; a gorgeous soundtrack of bittersweet pop songs by several favorites of mine, including Coldplay, the Shins, Nick Drake, Iron & Wine and the Thievery Corporation; and an impressive cast, though the other players don't often have a whole lot to do. Natalie Portman gives a fine, understated performance and carries her weight when given the chance, but her role isn't quite as big as the marketing folks behind the film would have you believe; Garden State is too much about Andrew and not enough about Sam to really be considered a romantic comedy. Andrew's father doesn't figure into the story as much as even my own synopsis would lead you to believe, either. When the time comes for Ian Holm and Zach Braff to confront each other with their father-son issues, it proves to be a mostly one-sided affair. The scene is true to the characters as their relationship has been set up, so it works, but it underscores the fact that Garden State is, by and large, a vehicle for its writer, director and star, not the fine group of actors around him.

Garden State cribs, to some extent, The Graduate's ending -- by which I mean only the final shot where Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross's breathless happiness fade to looks of ôOK, what now?" -- but it does so less subtly and therefore less effectively. As Sam and Andrew at the airport, discussing where their young relationship is heading, Andrew tells Sam that his leaving isn't a goodbye, it's "an ellipsis, not a period," but the minor problem I have with Garden State's final scene is that it is really a period pretending to be a question mark. By giving us a nicely ambiguous false ending and then undermining it with a more explicit ending that should make American audiences happier, Braff demonstrates that his quirky-kooky melancholy indie comedy is really more of a Hollywood film than it wants you to believe.

Even with its flaws, Garden State is filled with enough moments of genuine warmth, charm and beauty to make it well worth watching, but perhaps more worthwhile to watch is Braff's career as a director, which is off to a very impressive start. His work on Garden State is one of the most confident directorial debuts I've seen in recent years, reminding me somewhat of Wes Anderson's own debut not in style, but in quality. While Bottle Rocket is the funnier and more successful of the two films overall, Braff's visual sense and gift with actors is more well-developed than Anderson's was at the same point -- and if Garden State is Braff's Bottle Rocket, I'm dying to see his Rushmore.

Garden State is playing at River East 21, Pipers Alley, Renaissance Place and the Evanston Century 12/CinéArts 6.

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Comments

Laura Doherty / August 17, 2004 11:06 PM

I just saw this movie tonight and it left me feeling a little empty. Agreed, pretty good soundtrack, but that's certainly not enough to carry a film. It is a little quirky but so much of the plot and characters were left undeveloped. Not worth the $8, wait for rental.

 

About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didnÝt like the movie that much.

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