Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Elwood's Essentials #6: Garden State

Title: Garden State
Director: Zach Braff
Released: 2004
Starring: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Jean Smart, Armando Riesco, Jackie Hoffman, Method Man, Alex Burns, Jim Parsons, Michael Weston

Plot: Andrew (Braff) is currently working as a semi-successful actor in LA, while largely numb to his surroundings thanks to a life lived on mood stabilisers and antidepressants thanks to a childhood diagnosis by his psychologist father (Holm). Now returning to his hometown of New Jersey to attend his mothers funeral he decides to take a break from his meds and see what life is like off them, while at the same time meeting pathological liar Sam (Portman), who soon joins Andrew as he tries to discover a life without meds

(What no trailer? Blame the studio for not allowing the UK Streaming rights)
Review:  Released at the height of Braff's popularity while he was still appearing in “Scrubs”, it is actually a pretty surprising film, seeing how it’s an indie comedy dealing with its lead character taking a break from his life lived on prescription drugs, which is far from the sort of fodder that we have come to expect from directorial debuts being made by well known actors, something which always gets the alarm bells ringing, much less when they open to lead characters being caught in the turmoil of a plane falling out of the sky, while they stare directly into the camera, seemingly numb to the chaos erupting around him. Somehow Braff not only manages to make it work, but also manages to tell a touching story without feeling the need to go all preachy on the subject of prescription drugs and the state of our medicated nation.

Braff while better known for his comedy talents, actually gets to show a more serious side to his acting abilities while he still manages to include numerous humorous moments throughout, but this is largely from natural humour than aiming for laugh out loud funny. Equally Braff has a great ear for dialogue as he drives the film with Andrew interactions with friends from his hometown, rather than visual flair even though it is equally hard to deny that it still a stunningly shot film without noticeably trying, with shots like Andrew riding around on his Motorcycle with sidecar or having leg humped by a seeing eye dog becoming instantly memorable.

Equally memorable are the various characters Andrew encounters, such as former best friend Mark (Sarsgaard) who now works as a grave digger, while also running a number of side-line businesses from desert storm trading cards and exploiting the the refund policy of the local supermarket through to selling the Jewellery of the same people he’s burying. Equally prominent is the character of Sam, who not only comes with her own set of issues being a pathological liar, but she is equally a life loving free spirit and much more than just a quirky love intrest, especially considering how downplayed any feelings they have for each other are downplayed until close the end were Braff finally relents, but until then both of the characters clearly feel something for each other, its just neither no how to express it, no doubt at the result of people viewing them for their issues rather than the person behind them.  Portman is notably great in this role as she not only gives one of her strongest performances in years but also brings such a carefree sense of fun to the character, that is hard to not like her infectious enthusiasm or even her more childlike moments such as the one seem during a bathtub confessional she holds with Andrew, when a lesser actress might have overplayed them or made them overly smaltzy.

With the cast on awhole Braff really hit pay dirt with, seeing how upon the films release none (with perhaps the exception of Portman) were especially well known and have since gone onto bigger and better things, which pretty amusing to see so many well-known actors appearing in what is essentially a very low budget film. Infact it was only during the re-watching of this film for this review that I noticed Jim Parson’s (Sheldon from The Big Bang Therory) cameo as a Klingon speaking knight. This luck also carried over to the soundtrack, which Braff not only compiled but also used it to introduce the world to “The Shins” who supply the more memorable parts of the soundtrack including my personal favourite “New Slang”.

In a perfect world Zach Braff would be noted amongst the greats of indie cinema but it has taken him almost ten years to follow this film up with his kickstarter funded “Wish I Was Here” which is due to be released next year were it will finally answer if this film was just a lucky fluke. This is not to say that he hasn’t been directing in the meantime, seeing how he has notched up several episodes of “Scrubs” aswell as music videos for the likes of Gavin DeGraw and Joshua Radin but what I really want to see is more feature work from him, but until then it remains an interesting curiosity on his C.V and one I would love to see him build on, while hopfully capturing the charm of this debut.

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