Garden State

2004, Movie, R, 118 mins

Review

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Although Zach Braff's promising writing-directing debut is a bit affected, few actors with behind-the-camera aspirations succeed as well as the Scrubs star does with this melancholy romantic comedy, in which he also stars. Braff's screenplay, which revolves around struggling 26-year-old actor Andrew "Large" Largeman (Braff), who returns home to suburban New Jersey to attend his mother's funeral, is based on his own material, not Rick Moody's similarly themed novel. Ever since he caused the accident that paralyzed his mother — he was only 9 at the time — Large has been living life in a mild pharmaceutical haze, numbed by the regimen of antidepressants prescribed by his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm), who should really know better than to diagnose and medicate his own son. When we first see Large, who's best known — to the degree he's known at all — for his portrayal of a mentally challenged quarterback on TV, he's lying flat on his back in his L.A. bedroom and once again screening a call from his father. But this message from Dr. Largeman isn't so easily ignored: Large's paraplegic mother has died, drowned in her own bathtub. Once back home, Large must not only contend with relatives he hasn't seen in almost a decade, but also high-school friends like Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a gravedigger who never put the bong down long enough to move out of his mother's house. Without consulting his father, Large decides to leave his meds in Los Angeles; not the wisest move, perhaps, but if ever there was a time to put things back into clear perspective, this is it. The sharp headaches he starts experiencing send him to the waiting room of Dr. Cohen (Ron Leibman), where he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a charming oddball who recognizes Large from TV and can't believe he isn't mentally challenged in real life. Captivated, Large offers Sam a ride home on his grandfather's WWII-era motorbike, and thus embarks on a dizzying emotional odyssey during which he will lose his moorings, change tack and find a new direction. It's just the kind of story a young writer hoping to reflect the confusion of his entire generation would come up with, but a number of Braff's scenes are surprisingly well written and equally well acted. Portman is particularly adorable — relieved of those ridiculous STAR WARS headdresses, she delivers easily her richest performance to date — and Sarsgaard, in a total change of pace from SHATTERED GLASS and BOYS DON'T CRY, continues to impress with his unusually broad range. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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