As the latest indie film phenomenon, Garden State echoes Good Will Hunting in content and approach. Both are set in New England; both are about a young man finding himself while interacting with a girl. Both have moments of revealing truth that will strike a chord with most anyone. Not coincidentally, both are penned by young men as their first screenplays. Therefore unsurprisingly, Garden State soars at times, but also stumbles at times, resulting in an uneven but ultimately worthwhile cinematic experience.
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The film is the brainchild of 29-year old writer/director/star Zach Braff (NBC's Scrubs), and it follows in the footsteps of last year's Lost in Translation, gently telling a simple story of two people who find each other in a crazy world. Andrew (Braff), a L.A.-based actor, returns home to New Jersey (The Garden State...get it?) after a decade long absence. He reunites with his father and childhood buddies, and finds a new friend named Sam (Natalie Portman). As he explores those relationships and himself, he eventually discovers who he is and what he wants.
In many ways, it's a typical coming-of-age story, but it often supersedes the genre. Set to a mellow Simon & Garfunkel (etc.) soundtrack, the film purports to be a comedy, and over the first half, does provide several humorous incidents. Not slapstick comedy, but rather a low-key observational humor described well in a paraphrase of Sam (Natalie Portman), "If you can't find the humor in life, you won't enjoy it much." While this is of course true, Garden State tarries too long on Andrew's dissatisfaction with the people of his previous life. Some dysfunctional scenes are necessary to establish from whence Andrew came, but they overwhelm too much of the film. Credit Braff for firmly creating an unhappy world, but in a situation that is familiar to most viewers, such redundance soon becomes just that.
The supersession occurs in the moments. Quiet moments. Intimate moments. Moments of frighteningly frank dialogue between two people. Moments that, more than anything else, reflect sheer honesty about issues that haunt twenty-somethings. Stripping oneself naked about themes and ideals concerning family, love, and future. These are the moments Braff dazzles wearing all three hats. Through his actions and direction he radiates the earnestness of the words he wrote, believing them as perhaps no one else could. These are also the moments that Portman earns her paycheck. A number of young stars could have played the off-the-wall portions, but most could not have sat down on a fireplace or staircase and assiduously asked questions. These moments are at the warm core of Garden State, even though many of them don't occur until the last thirty minutes.
That part of the problem with the film. While providing a few amusing incidents in the first half, Garden State meanders around for too long, heading loosely toward something, before finally veering onto the road and surging forward with purpose in the strong closing scenes. Of course, if the sometimes clumsy script had eliminated any number of gratuitous scenes, the running length would have been too short, but portions could have been added or extended as well.
One sequence in particular seemed to be blatantly missing a few pieces. Andrew realizes something upon leaving a boat, but the events on board don't properly stimulate such a reaction. I understand what was supposed to happen, and since such an epiphany was inevitable in this sort of movie, I have little trouble accepting the change, but the impetus is lacking. Something had to have been clipped, axed, or otherwise altered, and that lack deprives the audience of another potentially brilliant moment, a pivotal one that could have highlighted the entire film.
Being a twenty-something similarly searching for many of the same ideals as Andrew, I want to like this movie more; I want to rate it higher. But the flaws anchor down even a film with such remarkably resonant moments. In that way, Garden State is like the life it reflects. There are painful moments, but there are also glorious moments that crescendo the film to phenomenal heights. Call it 7 of 10, rounded up to four stars, especially for the younger crowd. This one will probably be higher than it should be on my year-end Top Ten list.
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