Movie review: 'Garden State'

Natalie PortmanZach BraffPeter SarsgaardEntertainmentMoviesGeorge LucasHealth

3 stars (out of 4)

There's a scene near the beginning of writer-director-star Zach Braff's "Garden State" in which Andrew Largeman (Braff) first meets Sam (Natalie Portman) in a New Jersey hospital waiting room. She's tiny, bursting with energy, and wearing earmuff-sized headphones that she thrusts in front of Andrew saying, "You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life."

The song is The Shins' "New Slang," in which James Mercer sings in his echoey voice to a tambourine beat, "I'm looking in on the good life I might be doomed never to find."

Andrew (and Braff) is at an age when refrains like that reverberate in his 20-something brain. It's that out-of-the-house but without a home-of-your-own in between phase, when a particular strain of anxiety meets a particular genre of hipster music to create irrational moments when you actually convince yourself that a Shins song could just change your life.

It all feels very heavy at the time, right?

In his big screen directorial debut, Braff, best known as J.D. on TV's "Scrubs," has taken this fleeting phase of life and made out of it a beautiful and solid movie. Though too dear at times, overly sentimental in its conclusion and sporadically overreaching to be the voice of a generation, it's otherwise emotionally spot-on as it follows Andrew back to his Garden State hometown for his mother's funeral.

After nine years away--having lived first at boarding school and then as a sometimes-working actor in L.A.--it is both surreal and too-real to go home again. Andrew, or Large as his friends call him, has been on some form of anxiety medication since childhood--all prescribed by his psychiatrist, who happens to be his father. With the very curious desire to feel some actual emotion as he mourns, Large leaves the lithium and Paxil and Xanax and Zoloft behind in his sterile Hollywood apartment.

Emotionally stunted and chemically askew, he attempts to reconnect with old friends, most notably Mark, a perpetually stoned gravedigger whose pension plan is a Desert Storm trading card collection. Mark (played with quiet frustration and humor by Peter Sarsgaard) is the guy we all go home to--the guy who never left, who still smokes pot with his mom, who prides himself on at least not working at Medieval Times and has reconciled the notion that he could leave, but won't. He's the guy who makes us feel superior while simultaneously letting us be the most like ourselves that we've been in years. (If you're that guy: Hey.)

Somewhere between running into old friends and avoiding his father, Large meets Sam--a glass-half-full epileptic who is one of those characters so unique she's hard to describe with words from the dictionary. If you'll permit me, she's mcquirkysunshinerson.

Constantly in motion, keenly perceptive, graceful and awkward, Sam injects life into Large's. I love that Braff wrote his ideal woman--his savior love--as flawed and happy. Usually we get one or the other. She's a loveable compulsive liar who tap-dances for laughs and catches Large's tear, when he finally works one up, in a tiny Dixie cup.

With her big-paycheck stint as Senator Amidala in "Star Wars," I forgot just how much I like Natalie Portman. She's genuine and completely in her element here--without any costly whiz-bang effects or George Lucas hoopla to overshadow her performance. And more than once her superb comic timing saves a scene from falling off into a precious abyss.

Braff, now a proven triple-threat, is blessed with his own comic chops, an eye for the small details of regular life and a simple, straightforward directorial style. He's got great taste in music, a mix of urban and suburban sensibilities, and is smart enough to know that you can't comment on his generation without mentioning Paxil.

"Garden State"

Written and directed by Zach Braff; photographed by Lawrence Sher; edited by Myron Kerstein; production designed by Judy Becker; original music by Chad Fischer; produced by Pamela Abdy, Richard Klubeck, Gary Gilbert, Dan Halsted. A Fox Searchlight Pictures, Miramax Films and Camelot Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: R (language, drug use and a scene of sexuality).

Andrew Largeman - Zach Braff
Gideon Largeman - Ian Holm
Mark - Peter Sarsgaard
Sam - Natalie Portman
Carol - Jean Smart

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Natalie PortmanZach BraffPeter SarsgaardEntertainmentMoviesGeorge LucasHealth
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