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Garden State

#604 - Garden State
Zach Braff, 2004

A depressed small-time actor returns to his small hometown for his mother's funeral and proceeds to connect with the locals.

There are certain words that I have to make a conscious effort not to use when it comes to summarising my views on a film because they feel like dismissive cop-outs (though that doesn't always stop me). I bring this up because Garden State almost seems like a film that is explicitly designed to court such shallow criticisms. The film is the passion project of Zach Braff, the man best-known for starring in the long-running hospital sitcom Scrubs (which I have no great affinity for, though I ultimately don't hate it). In addition to starring in this film, he also wrote and directed it; to this end, it seems like a deliberate attempt to write what he knows and build an entire movie out of it. Braff plays a small-time actor living in Los Angeles who has had some success in TV yet still works as a waiter. The plot begins when he is called back to his New Jersey hometown in order to attend his mother's funeral. While there, he proceeds to connect and re-connect with the locals. While several of them tend to be members of his high-school cohort (the most prominent of which ends up being Peter Sarsgaard as a professional grave-digger), the one he ends up being drawn to is a stranger (Natalie Portman) that he meets while waiting to receive a neurological exam. The two form a somewhat unlikely bond over their shared neuroses and odd-couple dynamic, with Portman proving a much more animated counterpart to Braff's incredibly distant protagonist.

Garden State manages the somewhat impressive feat of simultaneously feeling relatable and alienating, which is enough to mean that I can't honestly bring myself to hate it, but I struggle to actually, you know, like any of it. A lot of that has to do with Braff himself, whose heavily medicated character feels like a deliberate attempt to distance himself from the outward wackiness of his most well-known screen persona, and he manages to deliver a fairly decent performance as a result. Unfortunately, that doesn't extend to the rest of the cast. We're supposed to find Portman's bubbly personality as endearing as Braff's character does, but not even the scenes that expose the neurotic vulnerabilities underneath her chipper exterior are enough to distinguish the character for the better. Sarsgaard gives off such a bad first impression that his character's barely-there redemption arc never gains enough traction to feel significant, while Braff's other former classmates aren't even afforded that much definition. Ian Holm is brought in to play Braff's domineering psychiatrist father, but he seems especially wasted on such a minor role.

The film as a whole does tread into somewhat interesting territory as Braff's trip home forces him to confront a variety of problems both dormant and active, such as deep-seated psychological issues related to his mother, especially in regard to her life and death. This only works to add a through-line to a film that is otherwise built out of some extremely patchy vignettes as Braff encounters a variety of eccentric characters living in bizarre domiciles. The slightly exaggerated small-town nuttiness and the ways in which it ties into the film's plot isn't exactly implausible but none of it ever feeds into the main narrative in an organic way. It's not amusing in either a broad or subtle manner; without the balance, the dramatic side of things feels hollow. The unimpressive nature of the film's plot is reflected by the extremely standard film-making style where any flourish serves to detract from rather than enhance the finished product. I get that it's cool to hate Garden State because of its approach to the material that is idiosyncratic without feeling innovative or even charming in its own weird way, but it's not as if the criticisms are without merit as the film fails to leave much (if any) positive impressions.