Tuesday 30 June 2009

Garden State (2004)

Director: Zach Braff
Stars: Zach Braff and Natalie Portman

Andrew Largeman would seem to be a strange man. He lies there in his white bed in his white room with white furnishings, well not very many of them but they're all white, and he ignores his father trying to talk to him on the phone. He's been dreaming about being the one calm thing on a panicked airplane preparing to crash, but his dad has real news: his handicapped mother drowned in her bathtub the night before. He lives in Los Angeles, working as a waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant while pretending to be an actor, but even though he's been gone for nine years he flies back to Newark for the funeral.

We know that this is all about Andrew Largeman because he's played by Zach Braff from Scrubs, who isn't just the star here but the writer and the director too, but he's not a conventional hero. He spends his time looking confused and looking out of place in whatever company he's in, and we wonder quite what our sympathies are supposed to be. He's a nice guy, we guess, but he doesn't exactly have anything going for him. We mostly feel for him because the closest thing to normal in the entire film, and no, I'm not kidding.

He bounces around like a tumbleweed between people that he knows, old friends or new friends, most of whom seem to fit the description of acquaintances far better than that of friends. Rather than hang out with them, he tends to just be there while they hang out with each other. He doesn't seem to have any real friends at all and he doesn't have any strong connection to family either, even though his dad is apparently his psychiatrist. Perhaps that's why he's so messed up, at least one reason. We find a better one during the film.

I think the point of the friends/acquaintances is to highlight how nobody has really grown up. Kenny is a cop because he can shout at people, though that's a step up from snorting coke off a urinal. Mark digs graves for a living, collects Desert Storm trading cards and berates his mother for trying to improve him. Whenever he needs money he goes to the local hardware store, picks things up off the shelves and promptly returns them before even buying them. Jesse made it rich by inventing a gadget like velcro that doesn't make a noise when you part it. He now lives in a huge empty mansion without furniture that he drives around in a golf cart.

In comparison Mark is pretty normal. He's in LA trying to be an actor, but he's been typecast after a success as a retarded quarterback on a TV show. He can't cry, even at his mother's funeral trying to think of the saddest things he's ever seen in movies. He's calmly flustered by the world and it's left him numb, the world or the pills. He's been medicated for years but left all his many pills back in LA, so has now come to the conclusion that he might actually not have anything wrong with him but he's been medicated so long that he can't ever know for sure.

Braff is solid in this role because he can sleepwalk through much of it (he's in every scene) yet still leap out of his shell when he needs to. I've never seen Scrubs and I'm not sure I've seen him in anything else (OK, I checked: I saw his debut, Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery, but don't remember his small part in the slightest), but he obviously has a talent. My question, starting out on his career here, is whether that talent is more in his subtle comedic timing (think Ashton Kutcher if he was actually funny and not a live action cartoon) or more in his writing. This is a quirky little gem and it's obvious that the main reason for the film's success is him, so I'd lean towards the latter. Then again, it's based very much on him. I wonder how successful he'd be if he wrote something else.

He's not the only reason, given that we have lot of recognisable faces here, up to and including Ian Holm, but the only actor who really gets the screen time that Braff does is Natalie Portman. I think the main reason Braff shines is his writing is because she steals the show on the acting front. It's really sad that half the world knows her for playing Princess Amidala in the abysmal Star Wars prequels because that was an utter waste of her talent. Watching her in films like this, or Léon or Heat or V for Vendetta makes that trilogy look like it was made with lego bricks as actors. And I haven't even seen Cold Mountain or Goya's Ghosts yet.

Portman plays Sam here, a young girl who meets our hero in a doctor's office. He's there because he gets split second headaches; she's there because she's an epileptic who wears a protective helmet to work in an office because they have great benefits. She's there to be his love interest but she gets an unprecedented amount of character time to really build our connection to her and her connection to him.

I'm not talking about the obvious things, like she used to be a figureskating gator and she has a knack for accidentally killing her pets, or that she instinctively tells lies but regrets them even as she's telling them. I'm talking about the way she can bond with Largeman as his friends/acquaintances dance a diversionary story around them. What she does subtly with those gaps is every bit as impressive as her fast talking and fast rambling monologues. She's definitely one of the leading ladies working in the industry today and Braff well knows it. Apparently she was his first choice for the role but he never thought he'd land her.

This film was an IMDb Top 250 film for a while. It isn't now and it wasn't when I grabbed my copy of it for my book back in 2004, possibly because I did so around the time this was released. It certainly isn't that good, but it's a quiet and memorable piece that is likely to resonate with a good many people. In many ways it's like Slacker with a clearer focus and everything about it feels right. I could easily see coming back to this every few years as a feelgood movie, while acknowledging that there are better films out there that I have no wish to ever watch again. This one's something to grow with.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I heard a lot of buzz about this film but when I heard Braff was writter, directro and also starred in it I wasn't the least bit excited to see it. I caught it last night and have to say how very wrong I was. For a 1st time writer/director I have to say he hit a homerun! While it's no masterpiece I thought the writting was clever and his choice of Portman as his love interest was indeed a great decision!

I'm actually looking forward to what Braff does in the future. If this is any indication then I expect great things~