April 29, 2005
Zach Braff’s directorial debut, Garden State (2004), is the essence of an independent film. Made for a paltry (by Hollywood standards) $2.5 million, it has gone on to gross over ten times its budget and, more importantly, become the defining film for a generation of young, disaffected people who clearly identify with this personal movie and its fascinating characters.
Andrew “Large” Largeman (Braff) is an out-of-work actor living in Los Angeles and paying the bills as a waiter at a Vietnamese restaurant. He gets a phone call from his father (Holm) telling that his mother has died. He heads back home to New Jersey where he hooks up with old friends, including Mark (Sarsgaard), a gravedigger whose mom and young brother can all speak fluent Klingon.
Large is disaffected and emotionally removed from the rest of the world thanks to a steady diet of mood suppressing pills prescribed by his psychiatrist father. In some respects, he resembles the equally disaffected Harold in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971). Large aimlessly wanders through life with no real purpose. Even when he hooks up with Mark and his friends, Large doesn’t really connect with them. He is the outside observer who watches everything. Of course, taking Ecstasy at their party probably didn’t help, either. Generally speaking, Large is shell-shocked by life but this begins to change when he stops taking his medication and meets Samantha (Portman), an eccentric girl who is his complete opposite. While he is detached, she’s empathetic. He doesn’t talk much, she can’t stop talking. He is passive and she is very much pro-active—the Maude to his Harold, if you will.
It is the odd, personal little touches, like the sinks in the airport bathroom that go on as Large passes by each one of them, that are unique and establish right from the get-go that this movie is going to be something different. Braff also sneaks in references to some of his previous work with a cameo by Michael Weston who appeared with him in the little-seen indie, Getting to Know You (1999). In some respects, Garden State resembles a Wes Anderson film with its off-kilter vibe. For example, when Large goes into a doctor’s office, he notices a wall absolutely covered with diplomas and degrees. So much so that there is one hanging on the ceiling because there is no room elsewhere.
Braff’s use of music also evokes Anderson. Like the Austin filmmaker, Braff uses an eclectic mix of songs (from the likes of The Shins, Coldplay, Zero 7 and Nick Drake) to define the emotion or mood of a character in a specific scene.
Natalie Portman finally escapes from Star Wars hell to capitalize on the promise she showed in films like Heat (1995) and Beautiful Girls (1996). She is completely engaging as the neurotic and chatty Sam. She seems to be channeling Diane Keaton circa Annie Hall (1977) with her performance, displaying excellent comedic timing. Portman has such a radiant presence on camera and the film really comes alive whenever she’s on-screen.
Peter Sarsgaard delivers another wonderfully low-key performance as Mark. He makes his character’s quirks (like Mark’s investment in Desert Storm trading cards that he plans to sell one day for a lot of money) believable and grounds the film with his realistic portrayal of a guy stuck in a small-town but who is self-aware of this fact. Mark shows these little glimpses of self-awareness throughout the movie and they culminate in a fantastic throwaway line near the end of the movie that speaks volumes about his character.
Zach Braff, known mostly for his work on the goofy sitcom, Scrubs, shows his versatility and ambitious talents with Garden State (he also wrote and directed it). Despite wearing many hats as it were, he still manages to deliver a layered performance that is thoughtful and heartfelt with a definite arc that reaches a satisfying conclusion by film’s end.
There is an audio commentary by Braff and Portman that is quite engaging and personable. Not surprisingly, Braff dominates while Portman gamely asks him many questions to keep things going. He drops a lot of nice observations and bits of trivia as he points out friends and family that appear in the movie. Portman does chime in with some funny Making Of anecdotes as well.
There is a second audio commentary featuring Braff, director of photography Lawrence Sher, editor Myron Kerstein and production designer Judy Becker. With his dry wit, Braff MCs this track as the participants talk about the more technical aspects of the movie. This is an informative track that conveys what it’s like to make a movie on a low budget.
Also included are 16 deleted scenes with optional commentary by all the participants from the second commentary. Braff puts the footage in its context and talks about why they were cut (for time).
“The Making of Garden State” examines how Braff put his movie together. He says at one point that 80% of the film is based on friends, family or stories that he had heard over the years. There is quite a bit of decent behind-the-scenes footage and plenty of interview soundbites from the cast and crew. For a Making Of featurette it is refreshingly free of an excess of clips from the movie that always pad out the running time of these things.
There is also a fairly amusing collection of blown lines and bloopers.
Finally, there is a promo for the film’s soundtrack.
Garden State is a film bursting with ideas, keen observations on life and memorable images that make most other films look inert by comparison. There is a tendency for first-time filmmakers to throw everything into the mix on their debut because they aren’t sure if the film will succeed and they’ll get a second chance. Based on the strong critical and commercial success of Garden State, I don’t think Zach Braff will have this problem.