Garden State

© 2004 Ray Wong

GARDEN STATE, by actor and first-time writer-director Zack Braff (TV’s SCRUBS) has garnered much attention at Sundance Film Festival. It showcases the multitalented Braff and is lauded as a definitive Gen-X film.

Braff plays Andrew Largeman, a drifter and not-so-successful TV actor who sleepwalks through most of his life. He returns to his hometown in New Jersey – the Garden State – to attend his mother’s funeral. Estranged from his psychologist father, Andrew feels disconnected and alienated from the world in which he grew up. When he meets up with his old pal Mark (a grave-digging slacker), he further sees the meaninglessness of his life.

Heavily medicated to help him get through his days, Andrew decides to stop taking his medications (including Lithium) against his doctor’s and his father’s recommendations. Then he meets the free-spirited and chatty Sam at a clinic and they strike up an unlikely but immediate friendship. Sam has a perchance for telling little white lies, but her cheery disposition and outlooks in life slowly lifts Andrew out of his misery.

In writing the synopsis of the story, I realize that there really isn’t much plot in this story. It’s very slow moving and at 1h:55m running length, you can’t help but wonder: When is this going to end? It’s a predictable story, and mainly a character study, a mosaic of anecdotes on “the lost generation”. In a way, it succeeds in painting a rather bleak picture of a dysfunctional generation that struggles through life without directions. Almost every character in the film has no goals or directions in life. And that’s pretty depressing.

Braff’s script tries too hard to be quirky and irrelevant. Yes, they are irrelevant, and many snippets do make you chuckle at their absurdity. But ingenious? I’m not so sure. Strung together, these scenes create a not-so-pleasant scenery, and a story that just isn’t very coherent. The quirky characters come and go, and you really don’t know much or care about them, and they don’t really propel the plot. They’re like strange paintings on a wall. At times the dialogue is too heavy-handed and the situations too coincidental. The main characters, namely Andrew, Sam and Mark, are not very likable either so it takes effort to actually care about them. In a character-driven, thinly-plotted story, that can prove fatal.

Braff is serviceable as the dysfunctional Andrew, but in many ways he’s only recapping his character on SCRUBS. Portman (STAR WARS) fares somewhat better as the giggly girl-next-door, but her emotional scenes are handled too superficially. Holm (DAY AFTER TOMORROW) is fine in his small role as Andrew’s quiet, withdrawn father. Other actors serve their quirky purposes well in their minor roles: Smart (SWEET HOME ALABAMA) as Mark’s mother; Michael Weston (FINAL DRAFT) as Kenny; Ron Leibman (DUMMY) as Dr. Cohen. Sarsgraad (K19) is particularly good as Mark. His slacker character is not very likable but at least you can see some depth through those glazed eyes of his, and he more or less redeems himself at the end in one of the film’s most poignant moments.

Where Braff might have failed as a writer, he’s compensated with his deft skills as a director. It’s not easy to spot that this film is his directorial debut. His images are often haunting and unique. And quirky. While the cinematography is serviceably bleak, the soundtrack is very good. At times, when there’s not much on the screen to engage our eyes or our brains, it’s rather nice to have something to engage our ears.

Stars: Zack Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgraad, Ian Holm, Jean Smart
Director: Zack Braff
Writer: Zack Braff
Distributors: Miramax, Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, strong language, drug and alcohol


Script - 5
Performance - 6
Direction - 7
Sound/Music - 7
Cinematography - 6
Editing - 6
Production – 7

Total Score - 6.4 out of 10

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