Chris Bond

Garden State

16th March 2005
Garden State Poster reviewer: Chris Bond
rating: 4 out of 5
directed by: Zach Braff
written by: Zach Braff
starring: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm
genre: Drama Comedy Romance
released: 10th December 2004

On the surface Garden State appears to be nothing more than a vanity project; written, directed and staring Zach Braff (better known as JD from Scrubs).

The plot is simple, which is refreshing to see from a first time director. Zach plays Andrew Largeman, a drugged up, failed 20-something actor who works at a Vietnamise restaurant. One morning he receives a call from his father telling him his mother has died and must return home During his trip home Andrew leaves his drugs behind, starts to rebuild bridges with his father (Ian Holm), hooks up with an old school buddy (Peter Sarsgaard) and falls in love with Sam (Natalie Portman). All familiar themes, and on the surface a film that seemed destined for mediocrity.

It is a simple story, but the main focus isn’t meant to be the plot, rather the characters and it is there that the film excels; especially Natalie Portman. Having shown great promise in her early work (particularly Leon), a series of duff choices and wooden performances in Star Wars suggested that she would never be able to cope with the transition from child star to a serious actress. However, playing Sam (the chalk to Andrew’s cheese) she puts in a natural and loveable performance; a clear signal that with the right script Miss Portman is a great actress.

The film suffers at times in the absence of Portman, and at times Braff’s performance suffers from the obvious strain of having to direct and lead the movie. However, Peter Sarsgaard puts in a terrific performance (and coupled with his work in Kinsey it is hard to see how he won’t be a big star in the future), and an under-used Ian Holm is as effective as ever.

The real credit though has to lie with Braff; his script is full of witty dialogue, his outlook is engaging and he has genuine flair that hardly ever feels forced. He interjects the film with scenes that in less competent hands would have seemed absurd; with Braff they seem perfectly natural. The story telling does stutter at times; one scene between Andrew and his father at the end feels too forced, and many were not particularly fond of the ending (although I have no problems with it). Some may not like the meandering pace of the film and in many ways nothing very exciting happens, but then that is not the point.

Whilst this has been done before (and better in the case of The Graduate), this is great film. Braff is a strong talent to look out for, and seems perfectly at ease behind the camera. Vanity project or not, who cares? When a movie is this loveable then it doesn’t matter.