Garden State is a charming, if imperfect, film which at least proves that when not saddled with George Lucas’s leaden dialogue, Natalie Portman can acquit herself quite admirably as an actress. This movie has an interesting point of view, sharply written characters but a story that somewhat loses its way during its meandering final third.
Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) is a twenty-something actor living in Los Angeles, most famous for having played a retarded high school quarterback, now working as a waiter in a wholly inauthentic Vietnamese restaurant. His psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) has kept him so heavily medicated that the only roles he can get are mentally challenged characters. It seems that, in a moment of anger when he was nine, he caused a freak accident that left his mother paralyzed.
When his father calls to tell him that his mother has died, Andrew elects to leave his medications in L.A. as he heads back home to New Jersey to attend the funeral. There he finds a pair of old high school buddies working as the gravediggers. They invite him to party with them, “after we’ve finished burying your mother.”
After Andrew complains of headaches, his father insists that visits a doctor. In the waiting room, he’s rescued from the amorous advances of a seeing eye dog by a lively young woman named Sam (Portman). She’s someone who talks a mile a minute, often getting two or more steps ahead of the conversation and saying exactly what’s on her mind, whether it’s true or not.
This movie doesn’t follow a traditional plot structure so much as just track Andrew, known as “Large” to his friends, through the week he spends back in New Jersey and how his relationship with Sam helps to draw him out of his Zolox and Lithium-induced shell, enabling him to forge a more equal relationship with his distant, angry father. They cross paths and interact with Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), one of the gravediggers and a proud member of the slacker community, and Jesse (Armando Riesco), another high school friend who got rich by inventing silent Velcro. Now with all the money he needs, Jesse no longer knows what he wants to do and lives in a mansion devoid of furniture and, it seems, of life.
The film works best when it focuses on the scenes between Andrew and Sam. Braff and Portman have a great chemistry and the relationship between definitely forms the core of Andrew’s character arc through the film. The character of Sam could have been a shallow collection of quirky traits but as written by Braff and performed by Portman, she’s a full-blooded character who’s sadness is expertly masked by a sense of humor about life and a generous nature. She may lie compulsively, but it’s forgivable because she’s so likeable and because she usually fesses up immediately.
The main problem comes when Mark takes them on a quest to find his parting gift for Andrew. This doesn’t illuminate much about Andrew’s character and shifts the focus away from him and Sam. This sub-plot probably should have been cut back to focus more on relationship between Andrew and his father, which gets short shrift in this movie.
What this film does have, however, is a truly individual point of view. It seems to say that trying to hard to be happy all the time is a waste of time, if only because no one can adequately define what happiness is. What it isn’t is a lack of pain. Pain is a part of being alive and being alive is probably the first prerequisite to figuring out what happiness is.
Still, with two appealing leads and a standout performance by Natalie Portman, Garden State marks an auspicious beginning for Braff’s filmmaking career.