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Garden State (June 11/04)

It's hard to believe that Garden State marks Zach Braff's directorial debut. Best known for his work on the sitcom Scrubs, Braff - who also wrote the film's screenplay - clearly has a natural gift for filmmaking, as evidenced by his efficient and endlessly captivating sense of style. Braff doesn't fall into the playing-it-safe trap that seems to plague many first-time directors, choosing instead to take chances and imbue the film with a distinct visual flavor. Likewise, his script is peppered with truths that just about anyone can relate to, and nicely straddles the line between comedy and drama. Because of that, Garden State is one of those rare films that manages to speak to an entire generation - much like The Graduate and Fight Club before it.

Braff stars as Andrew Largeman, a disassociated twenty-something living in Los Angeles who has to return home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral. While there, he hooks up with an old high school friend named Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) - and does his best to avoid his psychiatrist father, Gideon (Ian Holm). He also meets the quirky Sam (Natalie Portman), and soon finds himself falling for her.

Rather than placing the emphasis on plot, Braff instead stresses the film's characters; as a result, there's a palpable feeling of mood created early on, one that lingers long after the end credits have rolled. Along with cinematographer Lawrence Sher, Braff evokes the classics (The Graduate, various Woody Allen films, etc) while effectively creating a look that's entirely his own. That Braff is an amateur photographer doesn't come as much of a surprise, as the film is filled with unusual and interesting instances of framing and composition. Braff does a superb job of ensuring the movie is always intriguing on a purely visceral level, something that can't be said of too many contemporary films.

Having cast himself in the central role, Braff must've felt fairly confident he'd be able to suitably capture Largeman's detached persona. There's no denying that the role requires a lot more subtlety than we've come to expect from the actor via Scrubs, where he's become known for his wide grin and willingness for physical comedy. For reasons we don't find out until late in the picture, Largeman's been on antidepressants virtually his entire life - though he's decided to go off them this particular weekend. This leaves Braff with the challenge of playing the character both as a blank slate (which is essentially what he is at the film's outset) and as someone who's slowly coming back to life. It's a fantastic performance, made all-the-more impressive when you consider Braff also had the behind-the-scenes stuff to deal with as well.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Braff's populated the cast with one stellar performer after another. First and foremost there's Portman, reminding us that she once held a lot of promise before George Lucas got his hands on her. As Sam, Portman gives what just might be the best performance of her career - definitively leaving behind any traces of the many roles she's played in the past. Likewise, Sarsgaard is just as good as Largeman's grave-digging buddy, while a whole host of lesser known actors provide solid support throughout the film (Armando Riesco - playing a millionaire friend of Largeman's - and Jim Parsons - as a much younger boyfriend of Mark's mother - are two notable examples).

And then there's the film's soundtrack, which is comprised of indie artists like The Shins and Remy Zero - along with eclectic additions like Zero 7 and Simon and Garfunkel. The music almost becomes a character in itself, with the various songs perfectly matched to individual sequences; if nothing else, it's impossible to accuse Braff of including bands for the sole purpose of selling more copies of the soundtrack. Credit must also be given to composer Chad Fisher, who seamlessly blends his original score with the many artists included by Braff.

On an emotional level, Garden State is one of the most engaging films to come along in ages. Braff deftly develops each and every one of these characters, to the point where they feel real by the time the movie's over. Some have complained that the movie's conclusion is just a little too neat and tidy, a complaint that's beyond ridiculous. Without getting into spoiler territory, the ending is just about the perfect culmination of all the film's events (any other finish would've been tremendously disappointing, really).

With several months to go until the end of the year, it's highly unlikely a better film than Garden State will come along. This is the sort of movie one waits for while suffering through the seemingly endless barrage of mindless dreck week after week. Garden State is a real treasure, an instant classic that will still be remembered years from now. Much as I enjoy Braff's work on Scrubs, it's got to be said: Zach, quit your day job.

out of

About the DVD: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment presents Garden State with a wonderful letterboxed transfer, along with several fantastic bonus features. The disc includes two engaging and informative commentary tracks, both featuring writer/star/director Braff (he's joined by Natalie Portman on the first, and cinematographer Lawrence Sher, editor Myron Kerstein and production designer Judy Becker on the second). There are 16 deleted scenes here as well, a few of which really should have been left in the film (particularly a searing sequence between Braff and Holm). Also included are three minutes of outtakes, a featurette that runs almost half an hour (and doesn't contain a single clip from the movie, an increasingly rare thing these days), and a bonus trailer for Millions. The only real flaw here is the absence of the film's phenomenal theatrical trailer, which is puzzling (to say the least). Aside from that unusual blunder, there's not much worth complaining about in terms of this DVD. A must.
© David Nusair