“Is it funny?”

About most movies, this is an easy question to answer. Most
films can be judged by their wit on a straightforward, physical
level: How many times did you laugh? “Garden State,”
however, is an entirely different affair.

While there are clearly funny parts, there is an undercurrent to
the film so sincere that the final taste the film leaves lingers
somewhere between extreme hilarity and sobering gravity. Such
tenuous lingering is what characterizes the main character, Andrew
“Large” Largeman, played by the Zach Braff
(“Scrubs”) who also wrote and directed the film. Braff
is the man behind — and in front of — this tragicomic
film, which looks at modern New Jersey with a healthy dose of
comedy and ridicule.

After 10 years of Los Angeles acting endeavors, a frustrated and
lackluster Large returns to his native state for his mother’s
funeral. Sedated since childhood with drugs prescribed by his
psychiatrist father (Ian Holm, “Lord of the Rings: The
Fellowship of the Ring”), Large weans himself off
anti-depressants during his weekend at home. Even more of
Large’s mind-fog is lifted when he meets quirky local Sam
(Natalie Portman, “Cold Mountain”), who helps Large
deal with his secreted and confused feelings. With his central,
thawing character, Braff has erected a crude, metallic and
nonetheless beautiful halo around the notoriously average New
Jersey.

Though Braff’s plot may not boast originality at first
glance — a love story with drugs and personal struggles
— Braff expertly twines novel ideas and characters —
most of which are actual anecdotes from Braff’s own life
— that give the film color and staying power. Braff mixes
heavy subject matter such as urban sprawl and father-son
relationships (Large and his father’s relationship is
strained, at best) with a healthy dose of idiosyncratic humor, from
silent Velcro to masturbating dogs, thus creating a balance that is
remarkably mature and warm for a debut film.

Braff’s acting anchors the film’s non-cheesiness, or
at least its attempt to stray from cheese. Possessing remarkable
candor, Braff is believable, funny and blessed with near-perfect
timing.

Natalie Portman’s over-animated acting seemed, at least at
first, too stiff a contrast to Braff’s stylistic ease. Her
character is hard to believe, but by the end of the film, Andrew
and Sam’s relationship is so sweet that her taxing
performance in the beginning is excused (stellar shots of Portman
in the rain help, too).

The ensemble cast jives with a lively, playful dynamic as Braff
has written the characters flawed, vivacious and interestingly
believable. Peter Saarsgard (“Shattered Glass”) plays
Large’s childhood buddy Mark, who, besides being a perpetual
small-time criminal, turns out to be a loyal friend who teaches
Braff to value a journey as much as its destination. Cameos,
including those by Method Man and Denis O’Hare (“21
Grams”), add to the expert timing and energy of the film.

As a directorial and screen writing debut, “Garden
State” stands as a testimony of Braff’s
behind-the-camera abilities. Working within the confines of a small
budget, the film still manages to boast deceptively-fancy
intervelomiter camera work and a couple of spectacular crane shots.
Transitions at times appear a bit stilted, but, whether intentional
or not they provided a sense of the disjointedness to the
environment in which Large lived.

The script, which is full of young and clever dialogue, guides
the film and is responsible for its bittersweet mood. Copious
amounts of symbolism and imagery give many shots a Hal Ashby-esque
feel of visual poetry; this aesthetic is aurally complemented by a
soundtrack that offers movement to lengthier,
borderline-music-video-scenes and features artists including
Coldplay, the Shins and the New Jersey band Frou Frou.

Aside from an arguably clichéd ending, the best thing
about “Garden State” is that it does not fit together
perfectly and seamlessly like many films of its ilk
(“Punch-Drunk Love,” “Say Anything”).
It’s not surprising that this indie film, which is romantic
and funny and addresses, instead of skirting around, issues of
importance, was nominated for the grand jury prize at the 2004
Sundance Festival. People may not be quite ready to hail this New
Jersey native as the next Woody Allen, but they can at least admit
that Zach Braff has unleashed not only a respectable movie but also
a massive amount of film-making potential.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

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