The Austin Chronicle

Garden State

Rated R, 102 min. Directed by Zach Braff. Starring Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Jean Smart, Method Man.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 20, 2004

"I am thinking it’s a sign that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images, and when we kiss they’re perfectly aligned." That snippet of lyricism from indie-pop heartbreakers the Postal Service is quoted to enormous emotional effect in a tender acoustic cover version by Iron and Wine in Zach Braff’s debut feature, Garden State, a zealously dreamy tale of love, loss, and ecstasy among twentysomething misfits in the brackish wilds of modern New Jersey. And like Ben Gibbard’s achingly gorgeous music, Braff’s film is unapologetically and unabashedly romantic; if you’re not drowning in the pink-flecked sea of love now, you will almost certainly want to be after watching the film, which rests two fingers on the erratic pulse of proto-adult trepidation regarding that heady emotion, how to get it, how to keep it, and do you deserve it, after all, in the end. To his credit, Braff (who stars in NBC’s Scrubs) answers in the affirmative, very nearly shouting it from the rooftops, although his character Andrew Largeman, like Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock before him, all but suffers the torments of the damned getting there. Andrew, back in his native Jersey from Los Angeles for the funeral of his paraplegic mother, has spent the last decade in a chemical haze induced by his psychiatrist father (Holm in a fine, understated, and pitch-perfect role), whose desire to keep his son on an even emotional keel throughout his teenage years and beyond has resulted chiefly in keeping Andrew comfortably numb to the point of zombification. Andrew realizes this and leaves his prescription pharmacopia behind, attending his mother’s burial without even the benefit of a lesser calmative. When he meets and begins to fall for Sam (the luminous, twig-thin Portman), he finds himself slowly awaking not only to the pain of life but also to the life-affirming power of love, which on paper may sound like the oldest cliché in the screenwriter’s handbook but instead here feels like a revelation. The comparison to Mike Nichols’ generation-defining ’67 masterpiece is more than apt. At times Garden State feels like an homage as it rails against the current narcotized state of an overmedicated society that too often opts to throw a warm fuzzy Prozac blanket over the shivering shoulders of youthful angst, but Braff’s unique cinematic voice – part soulful, knowing adult, part wisecracking teen – carries the picture and makes it shine with the dim melancholic star of someone truly, madly, deeply in love with love and its redemptive possibilities. As Andrew reconnects with life on a multitude of levels, the film moves from being a portrait of alienated youth to being a clarion call to arms against the bleak and soul-deadening mediocrity of the moment, and in doing so it achieves a revelatory ache. As an actor, Braff plays Andrew as a blank slate only now being written upon with anything resembling meaning. As a director he has fashioned a mash note to love that will speak to Generation Y as powerfully as The Graduate did to the Boomers nearly forty years ago. And as a screenwriter he’s crafted one of the most affecting portraits of stalled intimacy yet penned, and surrounded it all in a gently swirling pall of quiet indie cred. There’s even a Simon and Garfunkel tune on the soundtrack, which makes Braff’s character seem like the only living boy in New Jersey, which, of course, he may well be. L’chaim!

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