Zach Braff Successfully Doctors His Image From TV Goof to Indie Auteur
Zach Braff plays a young doctor working his way through a hospital internship with humor and fantasy sequences on television’s Scrubs, and as deft as Braff’s comedic talents have proven, it’s no surprise he’s branching out to the big screen. What does come as a bit of shock is his bent for serious material, and not just in front of the camera as the leading man in Garden State. Braff also wrote and directed this thoughtful, low-key meditation on growing up, love, obligation, and what home means.
The movie opens in a dream: 26 year-old TV actor Andrew Largeman (Braff) is the only passenger not panicking on a crashing plane—in fact, his face portrays no emotion, a deadpan he maintains for more than half the film. The alternative, whirling world around him contrasts with his numbed nonreaction, and it becomes clear that this dream is not a fantasy—it’s a reality for a man who doesn’t feel shit.
A phone call from his father wakes Andrew from his catatonic sleep, breaking the news that his mother has died. Now he is forced to head back to his family’s home in New Jersey, where hasn’t visited for nine years, beginning a weekend-long journey into a stalled relationship with his father, Gideon (played with controlled distinction by Ian Holm), and the memory of his mother. Running into old school friends—gravedigger Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and Karl (Geoffrey Arend), a successful inventor and owner of a run-down castle—provides the classic catching-up-with-old-friends narrative that has become synonymous with movies about going back home.
But the attention paid to small matters is what adds heft to this frequently told story: Andrew’s aunt (Jackie Hoffman) performs a live rendition of Lionel Richie’s “Three Times a Lady” at his mother’s funeral; Andrew himself literally fades into the wall when trying on a shirt his aunt made with leftover material from their home renovation; and an Ecstasy-induced semi-orgy house party gives us a slight glimpse into the lost young man’s surviving wit. Throughout, Andrew’s interior calm contrasts with the happenings around him, which, like the dream sequence, are often sped-up and exaggerated.
It’s after his chance meeting with optimist Sam (played by Natalie Portman, pretty and tomboyish and inquisitive, just like she was when she played the same role in 1996’s Beautiful Girls) that he begins to respond to life around him. Portman’s Julia Roberts smile and bubbly enthusiasm feels over the top at first, but only in comparison with Braff’s sobriety. Soon, Sam simmers down, they hang, and Andrew—just now clearing out after years of numbing overmedication—perks up. It’s a slow spark between the actors, which makes it all the more genuine. A love interest is an easy route to take in a movie like this, but it’s how Sam challenges Andrew to think—not the predictable promise of sex—that helps lift him out of his fog.
Near the film’s end, with a clearer mind, Andrew approaches his psychiatrist father about his dead mother, and the timing, as many things are in Garden State, is right. It may have taken a weekend to get there, but it couldn’t have happened earlier. Other character transformations are even more subtle, like Mark, the shifty stoner/loser/gravedigger, slowly learning compassion for his grieving friend. All these slight changes are welcome, yet the ending doesn’t find everyone fixed, thank God.
Garden State is not built around an original concept, and with so many clichés to dodge, it’s a wonder that this indie/romantic comedy/coming of age film rocks at all, but it does. The melancholy soundtrack with the Shins and Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First” helps, but thank Zach Braff for everything else.