Searching-for-joy ride 

A review of Garden State

click to enlarge Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), Sam (Natalie Portman) and - Andrew (Zach Braff) in Garden State.
  • Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), Sam (Natalie Portman) and Andrew (Zach Braff) in Garden State.

*Garden State (R)
Fox Searchlight/Miramax

Garden State is a weak title for a strong directorial debut that could easily be set in any number of American states. But that's not the most interesting thing about Zach Braff's life-affirming romp through American post-adolescence. What's interesting is how closely it follows the template of a midlife crisis film.

You know the drill: Man is emotionally constipated for reasons he can't quite understand, until ... Man meets quixotically charming woman (in this case Natalie Portman) who teaches him how to love again. Stir in some feel-good hits of the 1970s and a few experiential montages showing the protagonist's heightened middle-class alienation, roll credits, and go home to your e-mail.

Garden State's protagonist is not middle-aged. Rather, he's Andrew Largeman (played by writer-director Braff): a struggling 26-year-old actor who has returned to his native New Jersey for his mother's funeral.

Braff's New Jersey resembles neither Tony Soprano's mob land nor the mythopoetic working-class playground of Bruce Springsteen. It's kind of just there, mostly inside middle-class homes that run the spectrum from sleek and sterile to dog-eared and dilapidated.

The important thing is that Andrew Largeman is blocked. His father (Ian Holm), a shrink, is cold and clinical; their relationship was broken years ago due, we must presume, to the father's passive-aggressive style of affection. The death of his wife (Largeman's mom) doesn't seem to help bring them closer.

What to do then but party with your estranged high school chums? A little bit of pot, a hit of something better, a game of spin the bottle just for old time's sake and your stultifying emotional life doesn't seem so bad after all. Until you wake up still in New Jersey with the word "Balls" scribbled on your forehead.

Waiting for a doctor's appointment, Largeman soon meets Sam (Portman), who's flirty and chatty and a compulsive liar. Portman is a dynamic actress whose performance here recalls her early role as Timothy Hutton's would-be girlfriend in Beautiful Girls.

Portman's and Braff's courtship is believable not because of any overwhelming chemistry, but because of the way their characters are so ripe for romantic entanglement. She's a frenetic animal lover whose epilepsy forces her to wear a padded helmet at work, and he's a stultified depressant on the verge of shedding the constraints of numbing anti-depressants. (Cue Dating Game theme...)

There's not much plot to Garden State, only a slow reveal. Why has Largeman not spoken to his father in nine yeas? Why has he forever walked around in a daze? Why was his mother crippled? When the answers come, they're less shocking than merely necessary for narrative completion.

Strangely enough, the series of restorative epiphanies don't come off as trite or clichd. The absurdities of his world -- the doctor whose office is so full of degrees that one is nailed to the ceiling, the friend whose brother works at Medieval Times and wears his knight costume to breakfast, Sam's graveyard full of ex-pet hamsters -- are not punched up on the quirkometer but played dryly for great comedic effect.

Braff has a few things to learn about directing, but his rookie effort is notable. Yes, some of the visual puns (Largeman's staid dress shirts matching staid wallpaper, his sterile apartment mirroring his sterile inner life) are too on-the- money. And many of the songs in the soundtrack seem motivated more by his musical whims than by their capacity to further the story.

Garden State is a midlife crisis for young men, and as such, it's something we haven't exactly seen before. It's humor is dry and sharp, and its mood not unlike traffic suddenly clearing on the New Jersey Turnpike when you're young and a little naive and have gone out to look for America.

-- John Dicker

Kimball's Twin Peak

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