Released in cinemas late 2004 to a great deal of critical acclaim and written, directed and starring Zach Braff (best know for TV series Scrubs), this is the story of Andrew Largeman, an actor who enjoyed a modicum of success before ending up working in a restaurant to pay his way. When he receives a phonecall from his father telling him that his mother has died, Andrew must return to his sleepy New Jersey home town for the first time in 9 years and decides to couple this with abandoning the medications he had been taking since he was a child. On his return, he encounters many of his old friends, all of whom treat him initially as a returning hero who has experienced a great success, even one friend who has invented silent Velcro and lives the lifestyle of an eccentric playboy. Andrew’s first night back degenerates into an orgy of drugs and alcohol, which leads him to start questioning the spaced out state in which he has been living his life. A visit to the doctors the next day leads to a chance meeting with Sam, Natalie Portman, a larger than life character filled with an infectious and enthusiastic charm, illustrated by both the colourful clothes she wears and the vibrancy of her home. Andrew seems intrigued by this girl who embraces life so readily and they strike up an instant rapport. Together with his best friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), the two of them explore the town running into several more of Andrew’s old acquaintances all of whom seem to have messed up their lives and see his small success in LA as their way out. These encounters and Andrew’s rapidly changing relationship with Sam and Mark – who Andrew originally viewed as a stoned waster – force him to re-evaluate his childhood which was shaped by the effects of one accident denting the relationship with his father Ian Holm and how this has forced him into the adult he has become.
With something for everyone, the film is hard to categorise; essentially it is the story of Andrew’s journey, but it is also a surreal, laugh out loud comedy and a love story that steers firmly away from sickly over-sentimentality and in this it will draw inevitable comparisons to Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – certainly the colourful and quirky Sam reminds you of Clementine in this film. However, whilst “Eternal…” alienated some of the audience due to the strangeness of the story, this tale is based more in reality and should not deter too many viewers. The acting is first-class from everyone involved, with Natalie Portman being particularly impressive – she brings a vulnerability and innocence to the role, despite her character appearing feisty and constantly inquisitive. The deleted scenes are also well worth watching; highly amusing and fleshing out some of the bit-part players, many appearing to have been cut purely for pacing reasons. The soundtrack too is excellent and seems to complement the mood of the story perfectly.
A skilful and stylistic study of one man’s journey of self-discovery, Garden State veers between pathos and humour with consummate ease, it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Indeed the only bad point I can level at this movie is quite how sickeningly talented Braff must be!