Only rarely does a film as profound, as rich, and as deeply affecting as GARDEN STATE come along. Even more rarely is it the handiwork of a first-time filmmaker. That would be Zack Braff, known for his role as the philosophically harried intern on the subversively wicked comedy, Scrubs.
Braff is Andrew Largeman, a struggling Hollywood actor with one good credit, a television movie playing a mentally challenged football player, under his belt, and a demeaning job waiting tables to pay the rent until the next one comes along. Life is one long, prescription-drug induced,waking dream until a phone call from his father summons him home to his mothers funeral. From the aridity of La La Land, Largeman journeys to the stifled emotions of the refrigeration unit that is the home in New Jersey and father (Ian Holm) that he hasnt visited in a decade, and the warmly off-hand reception of old pals. Impulsively leaving the drugs behind, his trip east becomes a Pilgrim’s Progress from deadened emotions to a tentative, tenuous, embrace of an open heart.
His guide is Samantha (Natalie Portman), a girl whos life is just as messy as Largeman’s but who thrives on the chaos. Oddly attracted to her penchant for lying, and the utter disarray of her close-knit family that extends to a disturbingly large pet graveyard in the backyard, Largemen begins to question the wisdom of being a disinterested observer of his own life, always at a safe remove from it. Gravediggers with questionable ambitions and flexible ethics, a bored inventor who sold the rights to silent version of Velcro®, leaving him with nothing to do but kill time, and a knight in shining armor whose purpose is as mundane as his identity is awkward, all populate the landscape of their budding relationship, generating piquant juxtapositions and moments of achingly authentic emotion.
Braff has created an atmosphere reminiscent of Chekov in its finely drawn characters and astute observations of how life can be tragic and absurd at the same time. In fact, that line between farce and tragedy may not exist in a meaningful way. Look at something from a new perspective, and the laughs fade away into nervous throat-clearing, or the sober mindset evaporates into a stifled giggle.
There is in the performances a wonderful sense of spontaneity, as though there was nothing premeditated. On the other hand, there is nothing left to chance with the sophisticated visual sense that Braff uses in directing the piece. Theres nothing overtly showy to the way he places his actors to emphasize gulf, real and imagined, of time slipping away with no one seeming to notice, other than Largeman, of course. Braff plays Largeman as cipher, mostly to himself with a brittle veneer of carefully honed irony that serves him in any situation without forcing him to become more than superficially involved. As his foil, Peter Sarsgaard as Mark, the gravedigger with inchoate dreams and a pushy, well-meaning mother (Jean Smart biting into her role with a gusto that is palpable), has the same veneer, but beneath it is a resignation that is heartbreaking. The revelation here is Portman, who combines a compelling, effervescent vibrancy with an edgy vulnerability.
GARDEN STATE transcends the usual clichés of alienation as a lifestyle that reeks of being cool and hip with its endless cigarettes and the long, soulful stares into space. Braff instead, homes in on the genuine pain of disjuncture and the psychic shock of letting go (mostly) of past traumas with no guarantees of a happier future. For all the trappings of nihilism, there is at the film’s core a defiantly sweet tone that is as unexpected as it is heroic.