Garden State

written and directed by Zach Braff

starring Zach Braff, Natalie Portman and Ian Holm

review by Stephen Notley

First and most basic rule of screenwriting: Movies based around dazed, medicated, aimless main characters that just wander around are guaranteed to suck.

Revision to above rule: Unless that movie is Garden State. Then it's awesome.

The medicated main character in question is Andrew Largeman, "Large", played by Zach Braff, who also had the audacity to write and direct Garden State. The movie introduces us to him, lets us get used to him, his noticeable nostrils, his pursed kissy lips, his not-all-open eyes. He's out of it and with good reason, seeing as how he's just returned to Jersey from L.A. to attend his mother's funeral and kinda wander around. Normally, this kind of plot is the fang of death for a movie, but even as Braff lowballs his own character and performance everything around him, the rest of the movie, the filmmaking, is so restlessly alive, so inventive and entertaining, that you stay with it every second, all sauced with a soundtrack that several times during the course of the movie makes you think "Y'know, I should get this soundtrack."

Maybe it's Braff's eye for the almost absurd, the shirt he's forced to try on that disappears him into the wallpaper, or sensor-operated fawcets snapping on and off in sequence as he walks past, or the wooden spiral staircase he leans against as he barely talks with his father and psychiatrist Ian Holm, or the fawn-grabbed-by-alligator seen on a TV. Every new thing he shows us isunexpected, interesting, carries us along --and this is all before we get to meet Natalie Portman.

And then --we get to meet Natalie Portman! There she is, creeping in from the edge of our peripheral vision, curled up in a chair with her big headphones in the hospital waiting room as Large takes a seat. Her name is Sam, and she's magic. I'm not talking about made-up casting-spells ogres-n-vampires bullshit magic, either. I'm talking about *real* magic, the magic of a person like her taking an interest, looking, smiling, wanting to talk, the kind of magic that changes the universe. And Portman is so good, shrugging off the heavy robes and deadening air of Padme from the Star Wars prequels and recalling the old-soul 13-year-old from Beautiful Girls, now grown into a beautifully awkward young woman. And she has her crazy dogs and hamsterfilled home and little lies and incongruous brother and wee pet cemetary with the oddsweetest hamster eulogy ever.

Garden State is superficially aimless but somehow it feels surehanded, like you're being shown things for a reason, even if they don't add up to a "proper" story. A telling sign of a bad movie is if you get halfway through and you're wondering what has to happen for the movie to be over. Garden State does this but gets away with it; we don’t quite know what gotta happen, but somehow we know that we'll know it when we see it.

And so Large hangs out, bathed in the Natalie Portman glow, going through some of the stuff you go through when your mom dies, hanging out with old buddies, reviewing old events, spending all night with a cute girl at one end of a pool, true stuff, interesting stuff, stuff about living, especially about living in a dulled state, cut off from high or low emotions, seeking a way out from the deadness, learning to notice all the remarkable things to see and say. Garden State isn't an obvious movie, and it's one of those rare movies that breaks the rules and gets away with it. Check it out.

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