Garden State may have a familiar feel, but its off-kilter style and self-assurance remove the film from garden-variety treatments of its universal theme.
Call it heresy, call it a film critic's hyperbole, but I swear that during Zach Braff's loopy, lyrical Garden State, I felt I was witnessing the second coming of The Graduate.
The two films have little in common except style and effect. Braff's movie, unlike too many films since Mike Nichols' 1967 classic, doesn't feel as if it's straining to emulate The Graduate. But it strikes enough of the same notes that we realize the connection, without having it shoved in our faces. Garden State is so unassuming, so modestly brilliant at times, that viewers can't avoid searching their memories for what made them feel this way before.
I'm sure Braff has seen The Graduate, and it wouldn't be surprising to know that it was his template, yet Garden State never feels like a copy. It pinpoints the awakening of a young man who, pressured by success and stunted emotions, has resigned himself to an underachieving fate. The fact that Braff makes all this comedic - although the laughs often stick in our throats - without diminishing the tragic underpinnings is impressive indeed. I'm sure Nichols would be impressed.
There's a hint of Benjamin Braddock in Andrew Largeman (played by Braff, previously known only for his role on the TV sitcom Scrubs). Both return to homes they had gladly left behind; Benjamin for college and Andrew for an acting career. Andrew doesn't have a choice; he can't miss his mother's funeral. Her gravediggers are Andrew's high school buddies Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and Dave (Alex Burns). They invite Andrew to an ecstasy party, where he sits detached from the group, faintly aroused but emotionally listless.
Andrew's psychologist father, Gideon (Ian Holm), is the cause of his listlessness, for reasons Braff plays close to the vest. Tension between the men is palpable. We understand quickly why Andrew dodges the heart-to-heart conversation Gideon wants; neither heart is open enough to listen.
In one serendipitous stroke, Andrew meets Samantha (Natalie Portman), a gangly, loquacious free spirit who's everything he isn't. Sam, as she's known, has her own secrets, disguised by sunny eccentricity. They're an odd pair, both individually and as a team. She has her own problems, or what amount to problems for her, that anyone else might just slough off.
That's a notable strength of Garden State: No matter how strange or pathetic people become - too much so in some cases - the story remains grounded in its own well-defined reality. You want another beloved movie comparison of this? Try Harold and Maude or, to a lesser, more contemporary, degree Benny and Joon.
As a writer, Braff has a knack for detailing characters in sparse, entertaining bursts, not leaden exposition. People speak as people do; humor and tragic conversations don't seem forced. Braff knows this geographic territory, having grown up in New Jersey, the movie's setting, but he also knows these people and their peculiar traits. He occasionally gets caught in the trap of many first-time filmmakers: trying to pack in too much in case he doesn't get the chance again. But it all works out in the end.
As a director, Braff is preternaturally adept at handling actors. His own performance is solid and sympathetic, basically playing straight man to a crowd of off-kilter personalities. Portman's portrayal of Sam is a gem of charming vulnerability, the best work she has done so far. Sarsgaard (Boys Don't Cry, Shattered Glass) continues his rise toward the A-list of younger actors. We can't be sure of his character's intentions or loyalties until the moment that awareness means the most. Holm's tightly coiled presence works because Braff lets twinges of guilt sneak into the portrayal.
This review hasn't revealed too much of Garden State because Braff always finds something - an odd locale or a reason why a knight in armor appears - that keeps the material fresh and the audience guessing.
It's a jumble, assembled with care and precision that doesn't call attention to itself. Just as some viewers didn't "get" The Graduate in 1967, some moviegoers won't get this film in 2004. But it's worth a try, and success will be golden.Garden State
Director: Zach Braff
Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Geoffrey Arend, Jean Smart, Method Man
Screenplay: Zach Braff
Rating: R; harsh profanity, drug abuse, sexuality
Running time: 109 min.