Garden State was written and directed by Scrubs star Zach Braff before he made it big, while he was still struggling to get into the business. It’s one of those deep blue funk movies where a person has to find themselves in the giant mass of humanity. Andrew Largeman’s mom just died from drowning in a bathtub. He hasn’t seen his dad (Ian Holm) for about a decade because they haven’t really been on speaking terms. Now he lives in L.A. across the vast expanses from his native New Jersey. He works in a very zen Vietnamese restaurant and surreal daydreams clutter his apathetic mind.
The question is what will shake him out of his despondency because the death of his mom is only the inciting incident. As it is with a small town community, he’s constantly meeting all the old acquaintances from his high school days. Most are impressed by his foray in acting even though he hasn’t made much a career of it yet. The people he reconnects with include his old friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who works at the cemetery and doesn’t have much of a life except smoking weed. Then there’s Jesse who made a killing off Silent Velcro and now has all the time in the world for parties in his huge mansion.
That’s not what does it though. It’s when Andrew is sitting in the doctor’s office, hoping to get checked, because he’s been having headaches after being off the meds he’s been prescribed all his life. There he meets Sam (Natalie Portman) for the first time, and he’s never the same. She’s a scatterbrained, off-the-wall personality with a lot of energetic pizzazz. That about covers it except she also has epilepsy and is a compulsive white-lier. But in her Andrew finds a genuine spirit, who can revitalize his life, by giving him sympathy in his pain, while also brightening up his everyday reality.
On his last day in New Jersey, Andrew obviously wants to spend the time with Sam, but it ends up turning into a daylong treasure hunt as Mark tries to track something down. It isn’t much, however, it’s the thought that counts, and on their odyssey, Andrew is finally able to let go of a lot of the hurt and pain he’s been harboring. He’s ready and willing to forgive his father.
Then, there he is in the airport terminal getting ready to leave Sam for L.A. He has to get back and he promises to call her, but he seems to remember he’s a different person now. It’s a delightfully sweet ending to the film and we absolutely want it.
Braff’s wistfully apathetic demeanor is so wonderfully personified by a memorable soundtrack including alternative rock groups like Coldplay and especially The Shins. His brand of acting is really just playing a wet noodle, but he does it well. Those beady eyes of his constantly scanning back and forth nervously around the space he inhabits. And the film certainly has some dirtiness around the edges, but our main couple is so endearingly sweet. I respect a film that respects its characters such as not needing to show them having sex all the time, but it can paint their romance in more playful, soft, even intimate shades. Andrew takes drugs and curses, but only to dull the pain or express his bitter frustrations. Sam’s the kind of girl who states that she’s not innocent, confirming our suspicions of just the opposite. We appreciate both of them exactly for those reasons. He rides an army issued motorcycle with a sidecar for goodness sakes, and she gets teary-eyed over a deceased hamster. They’re quite the pair.