Movie Review
Garden State
Garden State poster
By Lee Tistaert     Published August 13, 2004
US Release: July 28, 2004

Directed by: Zach Braff
Starring: Natalie Portman , Peter Sarsgaard , Zach Braff

Running Time: 109 minutes
Domestic Box Office: $26,781,723
39 of 120
This feature has an emotional agenda, but it?s also a uniquely funny take on how bizarre life can be.
Garden State is an ode to The Graduate (B+), as well as various films since then. This story is about the angst of growing up when not everything is clear and when everything appears to be hell. First time filmmaker Zach Braff, known for his turn on the television series, Scrubs, weaves this setup into an impressive debut feature; he shows similar potential as writer/director Richard Kelly after Donnie Darko (B+).

Braff wrote, directed, and stars in this film, a danger for young talents; if you star in your own project, you might overlook flaws that you would normally notice if you were simply directing. With Garden State, the writing, direction, and acting is all solid, which is going to make many student filmmakers very jealous.

Braff stars as Andrew Largeman, a twenty-something who returns home for his mother?s funeral after having had a turbulent relationship with his parents prior to the death, and who has sunk into a deep depression over time about his position in life. Once home, Andrew has an encounter with various people of his past, a theme that anyone who has ever gone off to college can relate with. In his brief visit, Andrew meets a young twenty-something girl, Sam (Natalie Portman), a fun-natured though offbeat person who wants to help Andrew cope with the conditions of his life.

Writer/director/star Braff blends drama and comedy in a way that few can. Garden State could?ve been an emotional feast in which viewers cry a few times throughout, and come out with that American Beauty-type of tear building in their eyes. This feature has an emotional agenda, but it?s also a uniquely funny take on how bizarre life can be. Some of the humor is dark/black in that you aren?t sure whether you should be laughing, but Braff has crafted various situations in which even the dramatic elements have touches of hilarity. The audience at this screening was laughing/chuckling quite a bit, which is definitely not something I was expecting.

Braff is a highlight as a lead, but the one who really shines is Natalie Portman, with a range that was always detectable, but never coming through until now. Their characters? bond is very innocent and believable, and their acting chemistry is consistently electric. Peter Saarsgard also stars as one of Braff?s friends of the past, and his presence in the movie had been a positive indication to me given his impressive track record. Saarsgard is a strange actor, and some of the films he?s been in have a certain feel; his role in Boys Don?t Cry was very dark, and his role in Garden State is up there on a similarly ?weird? scale. But he?s also a performer who seems to always give 100%, and in this film he does exactly that.

Though I would?ve preferred a different route with the ending, it is going to please many in the audience, but it?s also an ending that works regardless. The film is remarkably well shot (some of the cinematography also mirrors Wes Anderson-style and Napoleon Dynamite), and the use of music is also effective. Braff tells a familiar, universal story, though at the same time dives into areas that other similar films didn?t quite go. Garden State is no American Beauty (A-), but it sure makes you aware of the possible potential within other young names out there.
Lee's Grade: B
Ranked #39 of 120 between Jersey Girl (#38) and Seeing Other People (#40) for 2004 movies.
Lee's Overall Grading: 3025 graded movies
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'Garden State' Articles
  • Greg's review A
    September 17, 2004    Zach Braff creates the most realistic and thought-provoking characters I have seen in recent years. -- Greg Ward
  • Craig's review A
    August 15, 2004    Leaves you wondering just what this talented young triple threat will do next. -- Craig Younkin