Andrew “Large” Largeman (Zach Braff) is an out-of-work actor living in Los Angeles and paying the bills as a waiter at a Vietnamese restaurant. He gets a phone call from his father (Ian Holm) telling that his mother has died. He heads back home to New Jersey where he hooks up with old friends, including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a gravedigger whose mom (Jean Smart) and her boyfriend Tim (a pre-The Big Bang Theory Jim Parsons) can speak fluent Klingon.
Large is disaffected and emotionally removed from the rest of the world thanks to a steady diet of mood suppressing pills prescribed by his psychiatrist father. In some respects, he resembles the equally disaffected Harold in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971). Large aimlessly wanders through life with no real purpose. Even when he hooks up with Mark and his friends, Large doesn’t really connect with them. He is the outside observer who watches everything. Of course, taking Ecstasy at their party probably didn’t help, either. Generally speaking, Large is shell-shocked by life, but this begins to change when he stops taking his medication and meets Samantha (Natalie Portman), an eccentric girl who is his complete opposite. While he is detached, she’s empathetic. He doesn’t talk much and she can’t stop talking. He is passive and she is very much pro-active — the Maude to his Harold, if you will.
It is the odd, personal little touches, like the sinks in the airport bathroom that go on as Large passes by each one of them, that are quirky and establish right from the get-go that this film is going to be something different. For example, when Large goes into a doctor’s office, he notices a wall absolutely covered with diplomas and degrees. So much so that there is one hanging from the ceiling. It is this example that also demonstrates Braff’s tendency to create moments that are a little too precious, like when he inserts a shot of Large’s shirt pattern blending into the wallpaper behind him for no discernible reason except that it’s supposed to visually illustrate his fucked-up mind state or something like that. However, they are thankfully few and far between and I’m willing to chalk this up to first-time directorial inexperience and an over-enthusiastic tendency to show off a little bit. As a first-time director, Braff wears his influences on his sleeve (see The Graduate), but he isn’t simply sampling them a la Quentin Tarantino. He’s integrating them into a personal story. Braff also sneaks in references to some of his previous work with a cameo by Michael Weston who appeared with him in the little-seen indie, Getting to Know You (1999).
With Garden State, Natalie Portman temporarily escaped from Star Wars hell to capitalize on the promise she showed in films like Beautiful Girls (1996) and Where the Heart Is (2000). She is completely engaging as the neurotic and chatty Sam. She seems to be channeling Diane Keaton circa Annie Hall (1977) or a young version of Ruth Gordon’s life-affirming Maude in Harold and Maude with her performance, displaying excellent comedic timing. Portman has such a radiant presence on camera and the film really comes alive whenever she’s on-screen. With Garden State, Portman also entered the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Hall of Fame. Upon closer inspection, Sam is a rather superficial character loaded with adorable, quirky affectations, but whose sole purpose is to help Large get out of existential funk and embrace life. That being said, Portman does her job really well. For all of Sam’s colorful affectations (she’s an epileptic compulsive liar), Portman is able to convey a vulnerability that is endearing.
What really saves Garden State from being too precious is the presence of Peter Sarsgaard who delivers another wonderfully low-key performance as Large’s laidback friend Mark. He makes his character’s quirks (like Mark’s investment in Desert Storm trading cards that he plans to sell one day for a lot of money) believable and grounds the film with his realistic portrayal of a guy stuck in a small-town, but who is self-aware of this fact and made peace with it. Sarsgaard brings an effortless charisma that is always interesting to watch. One moment, Mark is all easy going and then on a dime he insults his mother’s boyfriend in a casually cruel way. Mark shows these little glimpses of self-awareness throughout the film and they culminate in a fantastic throwaway line near the end of the movie that speaks volumes about his character.
Zach Braff, known mostly for his work on the goofy sitcom, Scrubs, shows his versatility and ambitious talents with Garden State (he also wrote it). Despite wearing many hats as it were, he still manages to deliver a layered performance that is thoughtful and heartfelt with a definite arc that reaches a satisfying conclusion by film’s end. Let’s face it; your enjoyment of this film will largely depend on your tolerance of Braff. He tones down his sitcom shtick to play a very different character. Large is internalized and emotionally numb from his medication that has him sleepwalking his way through life. Braff has excellent chemistry with Portman and together they make a believable couple, each with their own unique ailments, drawn to one another because they are both adrift in life.
While working as a waiter at the upscale restaurant Le Colonial in Beverly Hills and trying to make it as an actor, Zach Braff was depressed because his career had stalled. He was on the verge of moving back to New Jersey and wrote the screenplay for Garden State in 2000. For years, he had kept detailed notebooks consisting of stories he overheard from friends, personal experiences and local newspaper clippings. When it came to write the script, he integrated many of them into it. The film was originally called Large’s Ark because Braff always liked the story of Noah’s Ark and the notion of rescuing things that you really like and starting over, which he envisioned the film’s protagonist doing. He ended up changing the title to the more accessible Garden State when he realized that no one would get the original title’s meaning.
Initially, he couldn’t find anyone interesting in backing the project because the script didn’t conform to the traditional three-act structure. Braff finally got Jersey Films interested and from there he was able to go after the actors he wanted. He showed them the short films he had made in order to prove that he knew what he was doing. After meeting with the actors one-on-one they all agreed to do it. For the role of Sam, Braff had always wanted to cast someone like Natalie Portman and he finally wrote her a letter. She read it, they met for lunch and she agreed to do it. To break the ice, Braff and Peter Sarsgaard came to Portman’s university where they hung out and bonded. Portman remembers, “That’s a great way to start out because it breaks down all barriers and we kept that sort of mood on set.” To prepare for the film, Braff had her watch Harold and Maude and told her that he wanted Sam to be “a 21-year-old Ruth Gordon.”
Even with the cast in place, Braff found it hard to get financing because Garden State was a character-driven film and he was inexperienced director. All of the studios turned him down. When giving potential financiers the script, Braff also included a CD of music, populated by the likes of The Shins, Coldplay and Nick Drake that he envisioned as its soundtrack. When it came time to actually get permission to use this music, he found that each band wanted a lot of money. However, he wrote impassioned letters and approached each one with the scene where their music would be used. This technique paid off and Braff got them all to reduce their fees. Finally, Gary Gilbert, an independent financier who had made a fortune in the home-mortgage market, stepped up and agreed to provide the film’s budget, but only if Braff could get it down to $2.5 million. He was able to do this and ended up shooting Garden State around northern New Jersey over 25 days during the summer of 2003. The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival where Braff sold Garden State to Fox Searchlight and Miramax for a $5 million distribution deal.
Garden State received mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “This is not a perfect movie; it meanders and ambles and makes puzzling detours. But it’s smart and unconventional, with a good eye for the perfect detail.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “Once again Portman is a beguiling charmer, and the multifaceted Sarsgaard very nearly steals the movie. Garden State's lack of pretense makes it all the more rewarding.” USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “Like The Graduate, Garden State is by turns knowing and innocent, humorous and humanistic.” In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “The happy ending is somewhat conventional in comparison to all the unusual experiences that have preceded it. Still, there’s no way any viewer could fail to be depressed if Andrew and Sam didn’t make it as a for-keeps couple.”
The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson called the film, “an edgy quasi-comedy, it's very funny in places, touching in others. There is a little unevenness. But for a directorial debut, it's amazingly assured.” However, in his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “But a scrupulous avoidance of any solemnity makes Garden State a bit too light for its own good. Its method of skipping from one incident to another feels scatterbrained, and promising characters are left behind in the rush.”
Garden State was initially given a limited release, but word-of-mouth, thanks in large part to Braff blogging anecdotes of making the film and interacting with people who left comments, helped expand its release. Fans traveled long distances for a chance to see it in a theater while many saw it more than once – a very unusual phenomenon in this day and age of short attention spans and expensive ticket prices. The people who loved the film really loved it and those who hated it, really hated it. Case in point: an article that surfaced on Slate two years after the film was released that not only attacked it, but Braff as well, calling him, “Hollywood’s ambassador to the nation’s cool kids—the guy who interprets youth culture for film execs and then repackages it for popular consumption.” The article instantly dates itself with sneering references to Braff’s popularity on MySpace and Garden State resembling an “overlong iPod ad with less adventuresome music choices.” The only thing that is useful about this “think piece” is that it provides a pop cultural snapshot of the Braff backlash that had reached its zenith.
Garden State is a film bursting with ideas, keen observations on life and memorable images, like when Large wakes up after a night of taking Ecstasy to see Tim in the next room getting milk for some cereal in a full-suit of knight’s armor, that make most other films look inert by comparison. The film takes us to unexpected places, like a family that lives in a boat located deep within a cavernous quarry mired in litigation. With Garden State, Braff tapped into a generation raised on the Internet and iPods and whose recreational drug of choice are prescription pills. He struck a chord with fellow twentysomethings who saw things in the film that they could relate to, that spoke to them on a personal level, which is rare for any film to be able to do, much less one made by a first-time director. Unfortunately, Braff has been unable to direct another film with several projects announced, but nothing made so far. His film career stalled after Garden State with a couple of romantic comedies that were poorly received. Hopefully, he’ll get another shot to make another personal film.
Blackwelder, Rob. “Braff in the Saddle.” SPLICEDwire. July 1, 2004.
Bunn, Austin. “Melancholy Baby.” New York magazine.
Hiatt, Brian. “Five Reasons Garden State Will Be A Sleeper Hit.” Entertainment Weekly. July 27, 2004.
Howard, Caroline. “Zach Braff.” People. July 28, 2004.
Levin, Josh. “Why I Hate Zach Braff.” Slate. September 22, 2006.
Lite, Jordan. “Garden Club.” New York Daily News. August 25, 2004.
“Q&A with Natalie Portman.” Phase 9.
“Q&A with Zach Braff.” Phase 9.
Stein, Joel. “Zach Braff Has A Big Laugh.” Time. July 18, 2004.