When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse
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Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child has grown and the dream is gone-Pink Floyd
That's just how Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) feels at the beginning of Garden State. A former Jersey boy who felt born to run out of the Garden State and on to what he hoped would be a successful acting career, Large (as his friends call him) supports himself as a busboy in a Vietnamese restaurant. His only acting job so far has been as a retarded quarterback and his numbness has been exacerbated by the high number of prescription medications he takes (two whole cabinets full). He's so out of touch with life that he doesn't realize (in an early scene in the movie) that the nozzle from the gas station is still in his gas tank until he arrives at work.
This all changes when he gets a call from his estranged father that his paraplegic mother has kicked the bucket, Jim Morrison style. Reluctantly, Large hops the plane back home for the funeral where he meets up with dad and old and new friends. And over the course of the movie, old wounds are re-opened, a search for the meaning of life is undertaken and various people and things team up to try to break Andrew from his numbness.
Its tempting to compare Garden State with American Beauty and in some ways it could be seen as the twentysomething version of that mid-life crisis film. However in overall terms, a comparison between the two isnt that relevant as Garden State is about the same lost souls. But the approach it takes is different.
In American Beauty, all of the characters were people whose numbness pushed them towards the illicit side of life. Here, aside from a near-speeding ticket, theres little of that immorality. There is some question of whether or nor Large may have committed an immoral act as a boy that led his mother to her paraplegic state. But overall, the majority of the characters in here are your ordinary twentysomethings just out of college, still hesitant about joining the so-called rat race. A few of them (aside from Large) have been noted for making a few contributions here and there (one in particular invented a noiseless Velcro). Yet as Peter Saarsgards character says early on in the film Im okay with being unimpressive. I sleep better.
That is where the central conflict of Garden State lies, between staying in your own little world and joining the real world. Some characters have joined the real world (including a high school buddy of Large who works as a knight at Medieval Times) while some are halfway there and some need that big push. The central message, which isnt forced too hard, is that while the real world may be scary and dangerous, its also wonderfully alive.
The New Jersey of Garden State is different from Tony Sopranos New Jersey. Here its a world of swimming pools and small suburban houses with a garbage dump thrown in for good measure. Inserted among the scenes are bits of modern rock music as well as one classic Simon and Garfunkel number (The Only Living Boy In New York).
Braff directed the film as well as writing and starring in it and amazingly he does all three quite well. His writing and direction keeps the film free of characters that dont figure into it and keeps the supporting characters to the exact level that theyre needed. Braffs acting is just as good, as he starts the film off by giving us a tortured Andrew and slow allowing him to see that there is still good out there. Natalie Portman improves noticeably from her Queen Amidala role and reminds us that she can act with her role as Samantha, a potential love interest for Large. Saarsgard is good too, as is Ian Holm as Larges father.
Especially good is the mix of humor and pathos. Garden State is smart and it treats its audience that way as well. It never condescends or dumbs down to appeal to the teenybopper market. The film seems to sense that most of the people watching will be actual young adults (Mid twenties to early thirties) and it respects that. The only real flaw is the ending, which seems a bit too pat.
So in the end, Garden State emerges as a late contender for movie of the summer. In an era of product, it reminds us of the main reason we go to the movies in the first place.
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