Friday, February 18, 2005

Garden State / ***½ ( R )

Andrew Largeman: Zach Braff
Sam: Natalie Portman
Mark: Peter Sarsgaard
Gideon Largeman: Ian Holm

Fox Searchlight presents a film written and directed by Zach Braff. Running time: 109 minutes. Rated R (for language, drug use and a scene of sexuality).

A few years ago -- probably many more than I’d like to admit -- I returned home for my 10-year high school reunion. It was an unabashed blast and I ended up spending the evening with my lifelong core of friends and a strange collection of other acquaintances, including a few people I barely knew in high school. It was a night of surrealism, laughter and too much alcohol. In Garden State writer-director-star Zach Braff creates a world that, while composed under very different circumstances, captures the absurd and revelatory nature of finding yourself in a scene once so familiar yet so far removed from your current reality.

Andrew Largeman (Braff, NBC’s Scrubs) is a struggling actor in Los Angeles, whose fifteen minutes of fame came when he played a mentally handicapped football quarterback in a movie. Estranged from his New Jersey based family, he returns home when his wheelchair bound mother accidentally drowns in the bathtub. His relationship with his father (Ian Holm, The Sweet Hereafter) is something that was broken years ago, perhaps because his father took it upon himself as a psychiatrist to be his son’s shrink as well.

With nothing at home offering him any psychological warmth, Largeman (as he is referred to by almost everyone but his father in the movie) looks for comfort in the one area of familiarity that remains in his life, his old high school friends. He runs into his old friend Mark at his mother’s funeral. Mark is played by a great new talent Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass), who quickly returns Largeman to the drug addled, going nowhere party environment that was once so comfortable in high school, in which Largeman now seems uncomfortable and by which somewhat bedazzled. The atmosphere is too much like a life that has already passed these young men over. While the men are now 26 years old, the girls still seem dangerously close to high school aged; so much so that one high flyer assures Largeman that they are legal, “At least I think they are. Are they?” It is from this drug-induced reality that Braff’s unusual and remarkable visual style seems to find its stanch inspiration. The pictures he constructs with his camera have an almost trippy feel that seems to stem from first hand experience with the lifestyle presented here.

This unique visual humor permeates the entire movie, including scenes that have nothing to do with his old high school drug buddies. When Largeman’s father arranges for him to meet with a colleague, Dr. Cohen (Ron Leibman, Auto Focus), Largeman sits in the doctor’s office waiting and notices all the certificates and diplomas on the wall -- hundreds of them creating their own wallpaper-like pattern across the office. As Largeman looks up one wall, he notices one single diploma has found its way onto the ceiling. I lost it at this sight gag and laughed through most of the rest of the scene. If the ceiling had been covered in diplomas as well, I don’t think it would have been as funny, but that solitary framed certificate hit just the right point of absurdity.

In the waiting room, before gazing upon the good doctor’s certification honors, Largeman meets Sam, played with her own home-spun brand of girlish spunk by Natalie Portman (Closer). Sam is the light, the life in the film. She’s as quirky as the rest of this strange trip Braff takes us on, but she also offers a fresh start, a change. After introductions that start with a sharing of great sounds on a Walkman -- always a great beginning to a relationship in my book -- the two embark on a love affair of sorts, but Braff doesn’t trap himself into a romantic comedy with the couple. Sam does change Largeman’s life, but with a true exploration of what Largeman’s problems are. There aren’t any silly misunderstandings, even though Sam’s brother, the obviously unrelated Titembay (Ato Essandoh, Roger Dodger), provides an easy excuse for some. There are no harsh realities of love to be learned. She is just the woman who finally allows Largeman to see more than just his own problems, even though their relationship through the duration of the film consists of a mere four days.

Eventually Largeman and his father must have their resolution with each other, and this necessity does reveal the picture to have a fairly typical coming of age structure. Holm is solid in his performance of a dad who must face his son as he is rather than as he wishes the son to be, with heartfelt words by both. The British actor is an interesting choice to play Largeman’s father as he so often plays such clinical characters, and does so here as well, but the brief moments of conversation he holds with his son reveal a fragility in the character that seems only to be inspired by his son.

The coming of age material really isn’t incredibly original, but as it is presented here, with Braff’s wonderful sense of visual structure and wry humor, it transcends its own universality to become something original. Braff has established himself, in one fell swoop, as not only a serious triple threat (acting, writing, directing), but as an artistic visionary that this critic will expect great things from in the future.

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