Back in the '80s, at the last game the New York Jets played at Shea Stadium before moving to the Meadowlands in New Jersey, a frustrated fan held up a sign that read, "Jersey Smells." The much-maligned state of New Jersey is used to such insincere criticism.
First-time writer-director Zach Braff, made semi-famous by the NBC comedy Scrubs, presents his moody version of New Jersey in the independent feature Garden State. I'll admit Scrubs has its moments. I appreciate its highly visual and kinetic humor. Unfortunately, the show's creators have to ruin every episode with some overwrought and all-too-poignant mushy ending. You can almost hear the promotional voiceover for each show: "Tonight! On a very special episode of Scrubs..." My fear going into Garden State was that Braff would present a "very special" movie for us all to consume like pabulum.
And my fears were well founded. Braff went beyond making a very special movie: Garden State is the ultimate special movie of the year. Zach Braff stars as Andy Largeman, an actor working as a waiter in Los Angeles. The only role he ever snared was that of a mentally disabled quarterback in a made-for-TV movie. He has lost all contact with his parents and learns via an answering machine message that his mother has drowned.
Largeman goes home to New Jersey for the funeral. He continues to avoid his estranged father, also his psychiatrist, played earnestly by Ian Holm. We discover that instead of relating to his child, Andy's father chose years ago to simply medicate him. For the rest of the movie Andy kicks the anti-depressants and wanders off into illegal drug adventures with his old friends.
Most of his friends became losers. The loser-leader is the wandering gravedigger/thief named Mark, played by narrow-eyed Peter Sarsgaard. Mark seems to sleepwalk through life, but we are led to believe that his life is somehow wiser and deeper than ours. This kind of character drives me nuts: the stoned bohemian who is really just a lazy genius.
Every time Mark appeared I just wanted to go home and rent Henry Fool by Hal Hartley, a film that was masterful at dealing with that character type. Then add to Mark an assortment of quirky characters that seem to fill every corner of New Jersey.
Braff is not the first filmmaker to fall into this cliché, but why is it that every film set in the land between Los Angeles and New York is populated exclusively with wacky characters? If I believe what most American art-house movies tell me, Los Angeles is full of dull fake people and everyone outside of the City of Angels is an out-of-touch oddball.
Garden State also seems lost in a series of eccentric episodes that never really build to anything. Not to say the film doesn't have its poignant deep moments: It's lousy with them. Andy zips around on a cool antique Russian motorcycle with sidecar. At one point someone asks him where he got it. "Oh crap," I thought, "here comes a super-deep monologue. Hold on to your hankies, folks."
When we finally meet the love interest, played charmingly by Natalie Portman, we're dying for some momentum. Portman's Sam adds much-needed life to the film, even though her performance is remarkably similar to Kate Winslet's role in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She has a quirky family (big surprise) and made me wish the story centered on her instead. The trouble is she has to sit and nod while Andy rattles off monologue after monologue on subjects like, "I didn't even cry during my mother's funeral. I'm numb." A few more gratuitous boom shots later we get served up another monologue or quirky character.
There are plenty of interesting visuals and you won't be bored with the shot selection. But without a cohesive plot structure behind it, the film's wheels just fall off. And the end of the film is filled with very effective moments. Unfortunately, by the time we got to them I was spent.
The film is peppered with plenty of emotional songs that fit well with all the touching moments. If you have a depressed son or daughter who is headed for art school be sure to buy them the Garden State soundtrack. In one of the embarrassing moments of the film Natalie Portman's character lends Zach Braff her headphones and says, "This is The Shins. They'll change your life."
I would like to see the next film Zach Braff directs. If he writes it however, I recommend he actually goes out into America and finds characters who aren't wacky or tragic. It's not the end of the world. It's only New Jersey.
--- Matt Ehlers