Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Garden State

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

GARDEN STATE

6/10

USA 2004 : Zach BRAFF : 102-109 mins

The first thing we see in Garden State is a full-on close-up of its writer-director-star Braff – the first of so many such one-shots that Braff effortlessly fulfils the classic, narcissistic stereotype of the actor who steps behind the camera for the first time (see also Kevin Spacey in Beyond the Sea, his second feature as director but the first in which he’s also appeared on screen.) Braff also can’t stop himself from stumbling into the twin pitfalls which await any young writer-director regardless of whether or not they’re also acting in the picture: the first-time-itis problems of (a) self-indulgently mining your own autobiography for material and (b) chucking in anything and everything you can think of, just in case you never get the chance to make another movie again.

Braff needn’t have worried too much on the latter score: Garden State is sufficiently accomplished – and has done sufficiently well on limited release at the box office – to ensure that he’ll almost certainly get to write and direct more movies in future. And, if he learns from his mistakes here there’s no reason why he shouldn’t excel in those spheres. Taken strictly on its own terms, however, Garden State is a little too Igby Goes Rushmore for comfort – we’ve been down this road many times before, and in rather more competent and original hands.

26-year-old Andrew Largeman (Braff) is a struggling actor in Los Angeles, best known for playing a “retarded quarterback” in a TV show (Braff himself is best known for his small-screen work, in hospital comedy Scrubs). The sudden death of his wheelchair-bound mother back in suburban New Jersey (the ‘Garden State’ of the lukewarm title) sees him return home for the first time in nine years. There he bumps into plenty of old pals, including stoner Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) who’s now working as a gravedigger. Largeman also makes some new friends, most notably Samantha (Natalie Portman), a former championship-level ice-skater whose sporting promise was blunted by her epilepsy.

In his conversations with Mark and Samantha, we discover that Largeman has been on mood-numbing medication since a childhood accident in which he accidentally caused his mother’s paralysis. Against the advice of his psychiatrist father Gideon (Ian Holm), Largeman decides to see what will happen if he stops taking his pills. Initiating a romantic relationship with Samantha is the most obvious positive benefit, but this causes Largeman a painful dilemma when he’s faced with returning to his career in far-off California…

Despite its derivative nature (The Graduate has been identified as another obvious touchstone), Garden State engagingly creates an own easygoing atmosphere as a character-study of a young man at a crossroads in his life. Braff’s script, while episodic shows enough flashes of offbeat, genuinely funny humour to compensate for his broader reliance on kooky, desperately zany quirkz, and his direction – aided immensely by Lawrence Sher’s evocatively autumnal camerawork – is even more solid. Especially during a first hour in which we coast along on a wave of low-key, observational detachment that mirrors Largeman’s own quizzical anomie – watch out for a nifty cameo from Michael Weston (a cross between Matthew Lillard and Tobey Maguire) as cop Kenny, one of several intriguing but underused characters who cross our hero’s path.

The picture drifts out of focus, however, in a third act where Largeman must come to terms with the key players in his life – his father, Samantha, his friends, his mother and himself – while he and Samantha are being taken on an oddball, seemingly wild-goose-ish quest by Mark. This winds up at the bottom of a deep canyon where the travellers obtains a certain artefact from a beatnik-ish couple who deal in rare items – a somewhat muddily-handled plot development which seems to have been included solely to justify the oh-so-meaningful line “Have fun exploring the infinite abyss!” There is fun to be had here (not least in yet another striking performance by Sarsgaard, who’s so compelling you wish the focus was on Mark instead of Andrew) but as regards infinite abysses, perhaps Braff will be more equipped to tackle them a little later in his career.

26th October, 2004
[seen 9th October : Odeon, Nuneaton : press show – CinemaDays event]

by Neil Young