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Fox Searchlight Pictures

Official Site

Director: Zach Braff

Producers: Pamela Abdy, Richard Klubeck, Gary Gilbert & Dan Halsted

Written by: Zach Braff

Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm, Peter Sarsgaard, Method Man, Jean Smart


Whenever NBC decides to cancel “Scrubs,” Zach Braff will have a hell of a career writing and directing Volkswagen commercials. Remove the dialogue and whittle it down to 30 seconds, and Garden State could possibly convince me to buy a Jetta. As a feature-length movie, Garden State is pretty disappointing.

Probably the most crushing thing about it is that it starts out fairly strong. The first half-hour is full of little tragicomic vignettes that display Braff’s Chaplinesque knack for silent comedy. The film opens on Andrew (Braff) dreaming about being in a crashing plane. While everyone around him screams and scrambles for oxygen masks, he dazedly looks up, turns the knob to open the little vent above his seat, and basks in its little pressurized air stream. Then we see the bewildered Andrew get out of his car and discover he has been driving around with the nozzle from a gas pump sticking out of his tank. Later he’s blankly staring in the mirror in an airport bathroom, and as he starts to walk out, he inadvertently sets off a long row of motion-activated sinks. In this type of exposition Braff has found a great method to detail the passivity and stupor of his character, but suddenly he abandons subtlety and ironic humor for bad dialogue, teen-movie conventions, and an annoying reliance on slow-motion camerawork.

In the film, small-time L.A. actor Andrew Largeman (dubbed “Large” by hometown friends) flies home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. He’s been away from home for nine years, and at the cemetery he runs into an old friend, Mark (Sarsgaard), who is still living at home and smoking pot with his mom. Mark invites Andrew to a party, where everybody gets really fucked up but little else happens. Later, at a doctor’s waiting room he meets the cutesy Sam (Portman), who insists that he listen to her Shins CD because, “Like, it will totally change your life.” Don’t get me wrong—I spend a good portion of my week intoxicated and I also really like The Shins, but rather than identifying with these people, I found them absolutely annoying. Braff’s characters are shallow in the worst possible way—they are posed as deep. A sure-fire way to alienate your audience is to create a cast of characters in their mid–to-late-twenties, dealing with issues they should have dealt with in their mid-to-late-teens (such as realizing that “parents are people too” and “it’s okay to feel”), and then have them come out of it all with no sense of irony whatsoever.

In the last half of the movie, Andrew, Sam, and Mark embark on a little journey. Andrew is a little too Tin Woodsman-like, and the loser-ish Mark seems to assume the role of the Cowardly Lion. Sam, of course, is the beautifully spirited girl-child in pigtails with a heart of pure gold. They roam around together, and instead of meeting witches and munchkins, they encounter Method Man and a hooker. Well, okay, no bother, the outcome is the same: They all do a lot of talking about the idea of “home” and learn together that there’s no place like it.

Any of the film’s glimmers of profundity are quickly extinguished by cheap formulas, the most of insulting of which is a surprise “Guess what! I didn’t get on that plane because I love you!” ending. Okay, so I just gave away the ending, but you can’t call it a spoiler because that’s the ending of about 78% of all romantic comedies and dramas and sitcoms. Sometimes it’s a train, sometimes it’s a bus, but whatever it is, it’s just unacceptable.

To close, a word about the title. In this world there are good puns, bad puns, and puns that make you want to strap bricks to your shoes and jump into the nearest river. The original title of this movie was not Garden State, but “Large’s Ark.” Get it? Not only is there an actual boat in a rainstorm in the movie, Braff’s character follows an arc. As in, Braff took some screenwriting seminar and they explained the concept of character development to him and he thought it was so gosh-darn neat he put it in the title. Okay, it’s unfair to punish Braff for something that didn’t make it to the final cut, but exploring the badness of the shelved title helps clarify the overall feel of this movie. It’s somewhat intriguing at first, but ultimately just nauseating.

—Leah Churner

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

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