Before I watched the debut feature by Zach Braff, I must admit I’d heard a lot about it being good. I’d also, as I’m sure a lot of you have, watched a fair amount of Scrubs, in which he stars. I really quite enjoy Scrubs as it’s sufficiently light to be easy to watch, but with enough of a message to allow my mind not to get bored by the pointlessness of it all. I like the characters too, especially Elliot who is in my opinion one of the best mainstream female American sitcom characters around (a tough and highly competitive category I know). John Dorian, the character Braff plays, was to me always a character that was well realised but was not exactly exciting. He was so genuinely true to life that he offered very little new and I think that because it was such a simple performance, as JD is a very simple character, I dismissed Braff as an actor and almost entirely as talented. I once again fell into the trap that I imagine we all do too regularly; I judged an actor on one piece of work.
Garden State is one of those films that I knew quite a bit about due to word of mouth and wanted to see it. I knew it was a coming of age story and featured Natalie Portman, which is always a plus. I knew it was kind of arty and awkward and feared that it would be alternating between a Scrubs style silliness and a serious drama. While that might be partially accurate, it is not entirely true; there are some very surreal and odd moments, but these are the exception rather than the norm.
The story tells of a homecoming of Zach Braff’s character Andrew Largeman for his mother’s funeral and his uncomfortable time there. While there, he meets a girl (Natalie Portman) who he inevitably falls for, as she talks him through how to view his life more positively. Andrew Largeman, is quite fortunately nothing like JD. He is uncomfortable in all the fragile ways that troubled people are and its a really beautiful performance. He is a convincing and distant lead, one that lets the events become the main thing rather than the character’s reactions. Which for a story like this is essential, and when you have Portman as a co-star, there really isn’t any other option.
I’ve always been a fan of Natalie Portman. She is one of the most talented actresses around, being able to make any character’s journey worth seeing. I can’t imagine anyone else making ballet look terrifying or make an underage girl hitting on a hitman unmissable. This performance is one of the high calibre ones that really has to be seen to be understood. She is beautifully irrational, marvellously frank and a wonder to behold. While I wouldn’t say I was smitten with her, (any compulsive liar has to do an awful lot to impress me, and her character just falls short) I was very impressed. Her character would certainly be someone I would want to hang out with late into the night, as she is just so fascinating. I can imagine that I might fall for her in time, but the film wasn’t quite long enough for that.
Her character, Sam, has rather a fascinating view of life. She recognises that you have one chance, so make the most of it. Look on the bright side and try not to have too many regrets. One of the best quotes of the film is the following that she says after doing a very random and unique dance move.“This is your one opportunity to do something that no one has ever done before and that no one will copy throughout human existence. And if nothing else, you will be remembered as the one guy who ever did this. This one thing.”
Its quite an inspiring view of life and very uplifting, but not entirely right. As I hinted at earlier, her character is a compulsive liar. She then feels bad about it and confesses they were lies afterwards. Does this make it ok or should she try harder? The fact that she decides herself that she should for Andrew to trust her more really shows that it really isn’t. You have to wonder if this was a consequence or cause for her world view, and therefore if its ok or not.
Either way, the film is a must see. For a directorial debut, it is stunningly beautiful. The writing is also superb and I would certainly be interested to see anything else Zach Braff comes up with. That in six years he hasn’t done anything else suggests that this was a passion project and he’s waiting for another before he tries again. That is possibly a very wise move, as this sets the bar very high.