A hit of the early 2000’s, “Garden State” is one of those small films that was shot on a small budget, earned tremendous buzz at film festivals, and then grew a loyal audience through word of mouth. Written, directed, and starring Zach Braff, it tells the story of a man in his twenties who is stuck doing small jobs and with no idea of where to go next with his life. Either you have met people like this, or you are that person.
When I first saw “Garden State” it was a bit of a surprise to see Zach Braff a character that is so emotionally numb. I was used to seeing him do physical comedy as John Dorian on the show “Scrubs” where he played an aspiring doctor who would come always come into work with a smile on his face, despite the fact his mentor always called him “Bambi.” Yet the ads boasted his performance and his directing style, highlighting a scene where Zach’s character is standing in front of a wall while wearing a shirt that matches the wall’s tapestry. So when the movie started playing on The Movie Network in 2004, it seemed like a good idea to see what else Zach Braff could do. Turns out he can do a lot more than run into walls.
Braff plays Andrew Largerman, a small-time actor living in Los Angeles who returns to his native New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. Andrew seems to be an empty shell of a man. When his father Gideon (Ian Holm) calls to tell him about his mother’s death, Andrew is having a nightmare about a plane crash. But is it really a nightmare if Andrew is just sitting in the plane as if nothing is going on?
In New Jersey he reunites with old friends Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and Dave (Alex Burns) who invite him to a party. There he smokes marijuana and has some ecstasy, which barely have an effect. Of course recreational drugs probably have no effect on Andrew since his father, a psychiatrist, had him on anti-depressants for most of his life. The reason for this: as a young boy Andrew was involved in an accident that left his mother a paraplegic. But again, the key word here is accident. You have to get over these things eventually, and medication is not always the answer.
At the doctor’s office Andrew meets a person who just might awaken him from his stupor. In the waiting room is a girl, or in this case THE girl you often meet in movies. Natalie Portman is Sam, a pathological liar who instantly takes up to Andrew. In indie movies you often find quirky characters that you have more chances of meeting in movies than in real life, but they are such oddballs you wish you would hang out with them all the time. As Andrew shares a story about his mother’s death, Sam gives a tearful eulogy about…her hamster. One of her quirks is to stand in her room and make a weird sound, just to preserve the moment. It makes the moment stand out in history you see. Nobody else has ever made that sound except her.
One of the most moving scenes of the movie is when Andrew, Sam and Mark stand atop a derelict crane at a quarry and scream into the abyss after a deep revelation. It is as though Andrew has uncorked his soul and is screaming years of bottled up frustration into nothingness.
Looking back on “Garden State,” it was surprising to see Zach Braff play a character so unlike his funny onscreen persona on “Scrubs.” Instead the film offered a glimpse at the real Braff, in a state of alienation when he was writing the screenplay. You are in your twenties, you’re supposed to be a grown up, but most of the time you don’t have a clue of what you are doing. So, where do you go now?