I'm going to do my best to keep this review from becoming an all-out gush-o-thon about how good Natalie Portman is in this film. Be advised in advance that my best may be lamentably bad. Nobody's perfect. Except for Natalie Portman. Crap, I've started already....
Garden State is the brainchild and debut feature by writer/director/lead actor Zach Braff, who plays Andrew Largeman, a mostly unknown actor whose most famous role was as a retarded quarterback and who has lived most of his life in an emotional vacuum after his father/physician deemed him in need of mood-altering medications following an unfortunate incident in his youth. A product of the "Say no to drugs; get high on life-though not too high on life, or we'll make you take drugs for it" mode of parenting, Andrew returns to his hometown for the first time in years after learning of his mother's death, an event which his numbed mindset has left him uncertain of how to handle.
There's no typical three-act plot structure here; rather, the story simply follows Andrew's meanderings through his old stomping grounds as he tries to figure out what on earth to do with himself. He quits his medication, goes to one of those sorts of parties that most of us never get invited to and promptly gets on some more entertaining medication. He hangs out with his assortment of kooky pals, tries to avoid the steely-eyed resentment of his estranged father (played by the superb Ian Holm), and meets The Girl. You know, the girl that most of we males want to meet-and not specifically Natalie Portman, though for many of us that's quite the case, as well, but rather her character Sam-the kind that's fun and forthcoming and couldn't keep her personality under wraps if she had to. She's the virtual opposite of the aloof and unemotive Andrew: bright and perky and always in the moment. Yes, I'm gushing a bit. Shut it. It's simply nice to recall why many of us were fans of Natalie before she made it big with Star Wars, where her acting abilities are least on display. Anyway, Sam's company and the diminishing effects of his meds begin to reconnect Andrew with life once again, and offer him something beyond the sterility he's come to accept as "normal."
As with most "a week in the life" pictures, Garden State doesn't have much in the way of plot events; it's mostly about hanging out with the characters and getting to know them, then going somewhere else and hanging out with some different people. In such stories, good characters are the most important factor in the mix; there aren't, after all, going to be any billowing columns of flame as the bad guy gets blown up in the most elaborate manner possible to distract us if the people don't hold our attention. In some respects, it's difficult to compare Zach Braff's acting to the performances of the supporting cast, since the very nature of his character requires a minimum of affectation. Wisely, however, he does play Andrew as merely tuned out, not depressed, whiny, or angsty, or any other manner of personal disaffection that could grow tiring to deal with. It's Natalie's performance that really carries this film, though. She manages to truly embody Sam and make her into a real, believeable human being that you (and by "you," I of course mean "me") can't help but care about. For sheer acting chops, no one else in the film can really touch Ian Holm, but the story isn't really about the bitter old dude so much as it is about Andrew's attempts to learn to live with him, so we only get to see him just so much.
The film feels very enthusiastic about itself, and that helps when it comes to overlooking a few of the shakier bits. I've always found it to be clumsy when one character almost precisely repeats the words of another character in the process of making a point, and it's teetering on awkward and clumsy when it happens here. I would have some serious reservations about going to the doctor just one day after injesting illegal drugs; the guy could be a no-good dirty squealer. If one allows their logic circuits to take over, they'll realize that there's no way a fast-food restaurant would dress their employees in actual metal armor. It's too bad we never see the establishment in question, just for a glimpse of exactly how insane the proprietors would truly have to be. (Editor's note: Some time after writing this, I discovered that Medieval Times is, in fact, a real establishment. All I can say is "Holy shit! Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!") And really, who doesn't expect the film to end the way it does? I'm not saying I wish it ended otherwise; I have enough downer films in my collection already, but the happier ending gives it a bit less reality than the thematically similar Lost in Translation. These are minor quibbles, however. This is a good film, a nice place to visit when you just want to put your feet up and enjoy the company.
And Natalie Portman is so damn cute in it that it just makes me grin the whole time. Yeah, so maybe I have a one-track mind. We're all only human, except for those of us who are robots. Those guys are just creepy.
-review by Matt Murray