'Garden' of Delights

Quirky characters, restrained acting and a pure sense of fun make a journey of discovery a joy to behold.

August 20, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Garden State is filled with characters you long to know more about, in situations to which almost anyone can relate. And that's as near a can't-miss movie formula as one can get.

Writer-director-star Zach Braff, heretofore best known as a cast member of the TV sitcom Scrubs, has constructed a witty, literate and delicately insightful little gem of a movie about a prodigal son making tentative reconnections to his family, and in the process discovering he's entitled to a much higher opinion of himself than he's ever held. The movie's a journey of discovery that's both fun and enlightening, no small task but one it pulls off with a minimum of self-consciousness and a wonderfully ingratiating purity of spirit.

Garden State is filled with wry humor, honestly quirky characters and the joy of actors allowed to inhabit and interpret their characters, not simply replicate what someone else has written down.

Braff stars as Andrew Largeman (the name is purposefully ironic, since Andrew sees himself as anything but large), a moderately successful TV actor who returns home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral. Clearly, there are issues between him and his father (Ian Holm), issues so obtrusive that Andrew can't bear to be near the older man; during the funeral, he hangs out with the gravediggers, one of whom turns out to be a former classmate, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard).

Mark is a skeptic, a challenger, an observer who delights in pushing people's buttons and seeing what happens, thrilled by the prospect that someone might surprise him. Andrew does, creating a bond between the two that will reap unexpected dividends.

It soon becomes clear that Andrew was seen as something of an oddity by his classmates - not necessarily a nerd or an outcast or anything else so easily categorized, but as simply different. Perhaps disconnected would be the best description; when they meet him again, Andrew's classmates aren't so much surprised as astonished. "I thought you killed yourself," one says, and Andrew, whose shrink has him on about 20 different medications, seems neither shocked nor offended by the suggestion.

While in a doctor's waiting room, hoping to find out why these sharp pains keep shooting through his head, Andrew encounters Sam (Natalie Portman), a manic and joyful spirit who is as prone to underestimate him as anyone else ("I can't believe you're not really retarded!" she exclaims upon recognizing him). But as down as Andrew likes to be, Sam is almost as determinedly up - not in a forced or bubbly way (Portman's too good an actor to resort to such easy histrionics), but rather in a charming, infectious, why-dwell-on-the-negative way.

The great joy of Garden State is watching Sam slowly, almost imperceptibly, rub off on Andrew. And as she does, we are let in on more and more of Andrew's layers. We find out why he's estranged from his father and why he's so unimpressed with himself. And we get to watch the joy of someone finally coming to grips with the notion that he has something to contribute.

Braff proves an engaging triple-threat. As an actor, his befuddled, laid-back style perfectly suits Andrew as we first see him. Then, throughout the movie, Braff opens up in small increments; as Andrew's medications wear off, he becomes slowly more responsive to his surroundings and open to his own feelings. Braff modulates his performance just enough that, by the time we realize Andrew is changing, he's already changed.

As a writer, Braff is smart enough to throw in the occasional laugh - when Andrew applauds a TV tape of Sam ice-skating in an alligator costume, the lights go off, then come back on, apparently regulated by a Clapper - without turning the movie into a yuckfest. And as a director, he's smart enough to employ a light touch and let the story unfold without undue prodding from his off-camera hand.

Portman has perhaps the movie's showiest role, and yet she may turn in its most restrained performance. With her energy and her toothy smile, it would have been easy for Portman simply to have turned on her acting spigot and let her performance gush all over the place, but she never does. Much to Portman's credit, her Sam is cute and perky and effusive without being overbearing.

Garden State is testimony to how well restraint plays on the big screen. This is a movie that could have been overly dramatic or a non-stop chortle, could have featured bravura performances from actors desperate to make an impression or been filled with actors stuck in an emotional trance. That it manages to walk a middle line between all such extremes may be its greatest triumph.

Garden State

Starring Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard

Written and directed by Zach Braff

Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Rated R (language, drug use and a scene of sexuality)

Time 100 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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