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GARDEN STATE (2004 - R)
The film tells of one man's personal quest back to his childhood roots in Newark, New Jersey after the death of his mother beckons his homecoming. During his four day trip he will confront the many skeletons in his father, beginning with his strained father-son relationship and his incessant drug-induced semi-comatose state. When the unlikely presence of a euphoric Sam walks into his life it seems for the first time Andrew Largeman may actually learn to "feel" his way through life's adventures; both good and bad.
Written and directed: Zach Braff.
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Romance.
Rated: R for language, drug use, and a scene of sexuality.
Tagline: "Garden State" is the uncanny comedic drama
Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) is a lonely man child; at 26 he's not quite an adult but far too jaded to exude that nostalgic innocence of youth. Still, making his way through the hustle and bustle of the cosmopolitan lifestyle of Los Angeles' "acting scene", between oddball jobs and small stints Andrew Largeman manages to stay afloat. That is, until a phone call from his "estranged" father (one might say that arguably Andrew is in reality the "estranged son"), Gideon Largeman (Ian Holm) begs Andrew's return to his hometown, Newark, New Jersey, so as to fulfill his role as son to his late mother who recently died in a tragic bathtub incident.
Completely indifferent to her death Andrew makes his way to his hometown where his "superstar" status precedes him. Everywhere he goes the likes of old high school classmates appear in the guise of "good buddies" ready to spill their latest "movie script" or "big idea" for L.A.; Andrew being the vehicle to launch them to stardom. Still, despite Largeman's ironically detached stance from his current family tragedy, there seems to be deeper issues running under the current of his stoic countenance. A brief, albeit evidently terse dialogue with his father reveals the many underlying problems in Largeman's estranged relationship with his family. Between years of interminable prescriptions and boarding school Largeman has done his best to live on his own while his manically depressed, paraplegic mother and his psychiatrist father cope with their life as a semi-dysfunctional family.
Still, with the help of former high school buddy Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and other close affiliations Andrew copes with the first few days of his homecoming via more substance use. But in between the drugs and alcohol a different, more alert Andrew begins to take shape as he reflects on his current life, his former past, and how his identity has been determined by such subtleties as "a quarter inch piece of plastic". Meanwhile, in the midst of his retrospective meditation a refreshing girl by the name of Sam (Natalie Portman) enters his life in lieu of a random hospital visit; one he was coincidentally very late for. As if fate calls the two together Sam's unparalleled optimism and inquisitive nature, despite Largeman’s polar personality, instantly compels him to befriend the innocent beauty. Through quirky diatribes on lying, life, and other coming-of-age truths Sam and Andrew immediately establish a profound connection that begins to take hold of Andrew. For the first time in his life Andrew let himself feel, with Sam'showing him the way. Through the pain and the joy Andrew learns of life’s little miseries and their unbiased entrance into all lives, even Sam's who seceded her quest to be an Olympic figure skater due to a tragic malady; epilepsy. Still, through her smiles and laughter Sam'shows Andrew that there is a beauty in life that needs to be appreciated despite whatever negative forces intercede; like the death of pet hamster, or even the death of Andrew's mother.
Between quirky escapades with Mark and memorable moments with Sam, an epiphany begins to take shape in Andrew's mind. Perhaps the cynic can yet be made an optimist. With a poignant trip to an unknown "geological phenomenon" Andrew finds beauty in the most unlikely of places, Newark, New Jersey, and in life. A precarious rainstorm takes shape and purges Andrew of all the burdens he's claimed as baggage over the years, leaving a “born-again” man standing at the edge of a “geographical phenomenon”; sharing his metamorphosis with his two “new friends”
But all good things must come to an end and Andrew prepares to head back to his hypostatic life in Los Angeles; Sam crying on the'steps of Newark Airport watching her beloved say farewell. But life goes on, with or without Andrew's collaboration and yet a final epiphany remains for Andrew to discover…the promise of love.
"Garden State" is a breath of fresh air; an unconventional joy that mesmerizes and hypnotizes audiences with its successful emulation of joy and promise. Between its quirky, unique characters and its poignantly humanistic messages and realities"Garden State" connects on even the most fundamental levels of the psyche and humanity's need for emotional nourishment. This film, much like the 1999 masterpiece "Magnolia" is a film about self-discovery, with Largeman’s character greatly paralleling the likes of Magnolia’s abounding "lost men and women" struggling to find themselves in a world of numbing anesthetics and worthless commerce. Of all places, Braff chooses the unlikely Newark as the place of “rebirth” for his protagonist and in doing so unveils the truth that beauty is to be found everywhere, even in the alleged “sinkholes” of America.
Perhaps one of the most pleasantly disarming features of the film is its artistic cinematography: "all the attendant qualities of lighting, sound, camera work, you name it. And the first two acts of the film are very enjoyable, and primed to establish a confrontation between father and son, and a great awakening for the hero, off drugs and learning to live life with feeling." Between the abundant "compositional shots" and panoramic perspective of the filming Braff unveils an unlikely backdrop for New Jersey as one not entirely immersed in asphalt and acid raid; rather, greenery as symbolic of life pokes its head out from behind the corners of each slide, beckoning a "reawakening" of the hero’s soul. The film is truly a pleasure to watch simply for its artistry if nothing else. But thanks to a solid script with many memorable one-liners and quirky diatribes, there is more to enjoy than the visuals. With "Garden State" there is no shortage of aesthetics or promise; it is simple a stunning piece of "rookie" work. Braff succeeds at bringing his vision to life, and immerses himself wholly in the work as its transformational hero.
Aside from the pleasantly surprising performance by Braff as Largeman, Peter Sarsgaard'steps up to deliver as an uncanny "disciple" of self-determination and iron-will. Despite his controversial lifestyle and arguably unethical means of financing his life, still, there is a determination and a soft doggedness, a quiet determinacy to stand on his own two feet and defer to no one, which makes Sarsgaard's character particularly compelling. Likewise, Natalie Portman as Sam is close to perfect. Her natural vibrancy and luminousness transcends her persona and transforms Sam into a memorably quirky, albeit complex, and intriguing character; the audience falls in step with Largeman in their continual fascination with her infectious personality.
Though there are arguably shortcomings to the film, such as a restricted budget, still, within the limitations Braff and crew succeed all expectations and deliver with a project that is in the very least, unique, memorable, and solidly "good". "Garden State" should have no problem standing alone and offers promise as both a "cult favorite" as well as a contemporary "pop classic"; to crudely classify. This film is refreshingly funny while at the'same time addressing some of the most fundamentally tragic and challenging aspects of human life. From death, to estranged relationships, disease, depression, etc., "Garden State" exposes all as happenstance "conquearables"; in the end, good faith and optimism prevail.
Still, with Ian Holm cast as the father, it would have been nice to see more from him. His role was small and at best, compelling but not fulfilling. The final scene between father and son leaves audiences wanting, despite Ian Holm’s expectedly solid treatment of the role.
"Garden State" was the proud recipient of 10 critical film association awards, including the Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best New Director (Zach Braff), and the Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack (Zach Braff). In addition "Garden State" received 24 other film association nominations.
Zach Braff plays Andrew Largeman, the man-child who comes of age in his four-day homecoming/personal odyssey back to the Garden State.
Ian Holm plays Gideon Largeman, Andrew's estranged father and part-time psychologist.
Natalie Portman plays Samantha ("Sam"), the unlikely muse.
Peter Sarsgaard plays Mark, Andrew's former high school friend.