Garden State

In Garden State, a struggling actor returns home for the funeral of his mother.  It's the directorial and writing debut for "Scrubs" star Zach Braff (Endsville, The Broken Hearts Club), and it is a dreamy, visually arresting first film that seemingly comes out of nowhere.  Braff gave no indication that he had this kind of talent in him, and it would be absolutely wonderful to see more films from him.  His character, Andrew "Large" Largeman, lives in a medicated world, working as a waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant in Los Angeles.  He is estranged from his family, and the trip home is the first time he's been back in nearly a decade.  His father wants to have a sit down with him, but Large does all he can to postpone this.

He also makes the decision to go off his various medicines.  The death of his mother and emotional distance from his father already weigh heavily upon him, and the absence of meds causes him to see the world and the people around him in a completely new manner.  What follows is a strange, funny, and sometimes very touching journey of self-discovery, both for Large and Sam (Natalie Portman, Cold Mountain, Attack of the Clones), his new girlfriend.  The two meet in the hospital, and Sam is the yin to Large's yang.  She's a free spirit, spontaneous, uninhibited, and brimming with life while Large seems to pass the day almost in a daze, even though he's no longer taking anything.  It's a fantastic performance by Portman, who pretty much erases the stigma of her Amidala persona.  He also hooks up with Mark (Peter Sarsgaard, Shattered Glass, K-19:  The Widowmaker), an old high school friend who now digs graves.

One element of most good movies (that typically goes unnoticed) is that by the end of the film, one or more characters are different from the beginning.  Something that happened over the course of the film or somebody they met taught them some sort of lesson or changed them somehow.  There isn't much of a plot in Garden State, just Large passing the time away with Sam and Mark, sometimes in a very odd manner, but this just allows the viewer to really take notice of how Sam is slowly changing.  He's been stuck in limbo in Los Angeles, and now, clear-minded, he is able to take stock in his life and figure out exactly what is going on.  Sam is the catalyst for this epiphany, a hyperactive freak who needs some help herself. 

Braff does a great job of contrasting tones almost haphazardly within the movie.  There is a constant barrage of weirdness in the film, from extra-friendly dogs, Sam's black brother, and Mark's friend who invented silent velcro, but it never feels like Garden State is being quirky just to be quirky.  There is a constant reminder that Large is in town because of a funeral, and the long-awaited talk with his father (Ian Holm, The Return of the King, The Fellowship of the Ring).  At the same time, there is a tender story between Sam and Large's budding relationship.  Then, Braff throws in all sorts of random comic relief that is flat out hilarious.

Above all, Garden State is a fascinating film to just sit back and take in.  The Shins and Frou Frou round out a very eclectic soundtrack.  Braff seems to be a visual filmmaker, and fills the screen with some very strange but interesting images, some that seem to last only a few seconds.  Braff on a motorcycle while a group of small children holding hands crossing the street, or the three main characters wearing trash bags standing on construction equipment in the rain shouting have a surreal quality to them.  It's ironic that Large is off his medication, because the people he meets and the situations he gets into almost seem too bizarre to be real.  Large seems to take it all in obliquely, eventually becoming more animated as he becomes surer of himself.  It was pretty bold for Braff to do so many things that are out of the ordinary for a first film.  But he did, and it turned out great.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 49 minutes, Rated R for language, drug use, and a scene of sexuality.

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