erasing clouds

Garden State updates New Jersey, The Graduate

review by matthew webber

About once a decade, a New Jersey kid makes good and tries to reclaim the Garden State from its "armpit of America" punch line. In the '70s, it was Bruce. In the '80s, Bon Jovi. In the '00s, Zach Braff, who, up until now was most famous for his role in TV's Scrubs, has made the most unabashedly New Jersey-esque piece of art since Bon Jovi's New Jersey.

Set in the Garden State, Garden State tells the story of a twenty-something struggling actor, Andrew Largeman, played by the native New Jerseyan Braff, who returns home from Los Angeles to attend his mother's funeral. In his short stay at home, Andrew reconnects with old friends, avoids his father, and meets a girl, Sam, played by Natalie Portman. For the first time since a childhood accident for which he and his father have never forgiven each other, Andrew is not numbed by medications; he sees life with a clarity he hadn't known he was missing.

What he sees is he's having a quarter-life crisis. His biggest acting role so far was as a mentally challenged football player. His friends are content to smoke weed and work menial jobs, except for his friend who got rich by inventing "silent Velcro." Only Sam seems to understand him, but she's a habitual liar who also suffers from epilepsy.

And right away you know they are meant for each other. It's a testament to Portman's talent that the talkative Sam is cute and charming instead of some gross caricature, or the type of role that people would refer to as the somewhat mentally incapacitated love interest of the actor who played the mentally challenged football player. Really, Sam's not that different from anyone else in the film; if anything, her compassion makes her more normal and certainly more likable than the rest; and this is probably the point.

But Sam is different from Andrew in all the right ways. From their first meeting - as a seeing eye dog humps Andrew's leg in a waiting room and Sam makes him listen to a Shins song - Sam's determination to get Andrew to talk, coupled with Andrew's persistence in listening to her and believing her, bonds them more believably than most romantic comedy pairings. Portman is just so adorable; perhaps she could fake such a chemistry with anyone. But unlike so many other screen romances that are based more on lust or obsession, this one seems genuine. The fact that these two people fall in love so quickly actually makes sense. This love story at the heart of Garden State's plot is indeed the heart of the movie.

And Braff's understated performance suggests a Dustin Hoffman-esque seriousness to his craft - unless, of course, his character was based on himself. Braff is a triple threat: he also wrote and directed the film, which is really a coming-of-age tale, which, knowing Braff's biography, is perhaps based on real-life.

Or else it's based on The Graduate, at which Braff seems to hint. Garden State opens on an airplane; The Graduate opened in an airport. A swimming pool scene in Garden State shows us Andrew can't swim; so he's even more confused than Hoffman's Ben, who at least could float along. The final clue is a Simon and Garfunkel song, "The Only Living Boy in New York," playing in a pivotal scene.

With its young-man malaise and indie-rock soundtrack, this movie is for the young. Afterwards, I even overheard the two elderly women who were inexplicably sitting next to me say something about not getting the film and this "different generation." Or, maybe they had already seen this movie. Garden State is no more derivative of The Graduate than the hundreds of young-man-finding-himself pictures that have been made since. In fact, it's acted and scripted better than most. However, it doesn't say anything new, as this young man, yup, finds himself.

From a sitcom star and first-time director, Garden State is better than anyone has a right to expect. Of course, it's not perfect, but it's good enough to buy Braff the time he needs to refine his craft. Braff's skill with dialogue is already dynamite; however, his direction seems darker than is necessary. His heart is in the right place, though. Garden State, as it should be, is not about camera techniques or set designs but life, dark but lovely life. And, as Andrew and Sam both say, what else is there but life?

Issue 26, September 2004

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