In the era of hype and summer blockbusters, it seems easy to feel impressed by a movie well before one stumbles into the freezing dimness of the theater. If the multiplex happens to be in one of countless depressing shopping malls or on the side of the oppressive expressway, the build-up is even bigger. And if the trailer is any good—these days they’re often very, very good—nothing can increase your enthusiasm, not even cheap popcorn.
Garden State is one of those movies for which the trailer—one of the most lyrical, intriguing and hypnotic short films I’ve ever seen—threatened to outdo the whole thing from the start. But the movie is also graced with another presence that recommends it, and perhaps also endangers it at the same time: the triple threat of New Jerseyite Zach Braff, who wrote, directs and stars.
New York’s veteran auteur Woody Allen can hardly get away with that trick very well, at least lately, and when you bear more resemblance to Woody Allen than Keanu Reeves, with about as much chutzpah as the latter, it’s a mammoth challenge. Not that Braff’s character, Andrew Largeman, requires anything resembling chutzpah: He plays a medicated, reluctant Jew, an aspiring actor returning home for his mother’s funeral. But if his style were any remoter, Braff could almost dissolve into the background of his strangely familiar, familiarly strange scenery. And, in one of his many pictorial feats, Braff as Largeman, wearing a shirt made from the same silk pattern lining the wall behind him, literally does.
The humdrum, confused life of mid-twentysomethings has a ready accomplice in the sprawling shopping malls and freeway-bound office parks of New Jersey, the stuff that nightmares and dreams are made of for the expanse of anonymous, white-housed suburbia that hums between the on-ramps. The staples of quiet, middle-class Garden State living are all here, sans the last PATH train back from the city. Like those who’ve never been, Largeman (we can imagine him telling his L.A. friends he grew up in New York) has no inclination to go back, only an obligation to go, and for no longer than he has to. As his early airplane nightmare and cache of prescription bottles suggests, this is not an easy return, but it’s made easier by that age-old re-encounter with childhood friends, who also happen to be working as grave diggers at his mother’s funeral. They waste no time in inviting him to a party that night.
The writer Braff’s surreal mix of dark and occasionally cheeky humor with generation-lost profundity is perfect for setting the scene, a mood that often feels more real than that of most still-coming-of-age films. And, while Braff the actor manages to justify and even enrich his numb character the more he weaves his way through a maze of “how old are we” house parties, fluorescent-lighting and tentative moments with a new girl, Sam (Natalie Portman ’03), there’s something awkward that still shouldn’t be. The sense that he is playing this exactly right—Braff, as his biography suggests (he was a waiter and, until now, a minor actor), is largely playing himself—can’t be overcome by the feeling that exactly right isn’t exactly convincing.
Good actors they are, and Portman’s astounding ability to cry aside, the main characters aren’t given much room to breathe, and the heat that grows between Sam and Large couldn’t be called chemistry by any stretch. What one wants most of all is for Large to bare his soul, to show how a kid coping with the “emotional problems” diagnosed and brought on by his psychiatrist father can evolve into someone who is simultaneously awkward and seemingly well-adjusted. Instead he offers sedate monosyllables and musings about house not being home anymore. The template for such characters was established in The Graduate’s Benjamin by the time Wes Anderson pulled it off with Rushmore’s Max, and maybe taken in a new direction by Donnie Darko. Surely there’s no troubled, learning-to-grow-up mold, but in the writing Braff’s protagonist isn’t fully mature.
Largeman’s underdevelopment might be chalked up to the medicated world in which Garden State is set as much to the aspirations of Braff the director. His eye for plaintive, sublime imagery is as impressive as his ear for awkward, funny situations, and smartly, the 27-year-old has used his big shot at Hollywood auteur-dom as an excuse not just to include great music (Iron and Wine, The Shins, Simon and Garfunkel), but to sew it tightly into the film. Indeed, his movie feels like a mix tape writ large, addressed to the thousands of kids like him who want to follow their heart, if they only knew where it was. Apparently, surprisingly, he left his in Trenton, or one of its infinite suburbs.
You gotta go there to know there, the anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote, an imperative never truer than in the case of weird, distant New Jersey and its modern day film paean. Like the place itself, Garden State’s reputation precedes it, the impressive talent of Braff and his beautiful trailer circling coolly underneath the hot summer air. But of course that reputation shouldn’t be a substitute for actually seeing it—and at least it deserves to be seen.
—ALEXANDER L. PASTERNACK