Good? Yes. A Classic? Hardly!
Zach Braff (of TV’s “Scrubs”) pulls triple-duty here as writer, director, and star. Garden State is a forgettable film featuring a throw-away story with unmemorable characters and unremarkable performances. That's not to say it's bad, because that would be an unfair description. But it's hard to figure out why this movie caused such a stir at Sundance. Boiling this movie down, it's just a generic story about how a 20-something loser returning to his roots, makes peace with his inner demons, and finds himself and love at the same time. The film does suffer from hype, but its success at Sundance probably says more about the festival and its attendees than it does about the actual production. Or maybe I just saw a different version of the film, but I doubt it.
Despite having assembled a strong cast, Braff doesn't elicit any standout performances, as he is bland. Admittedly, it can be difficult to connect with a character who is so dissociated, but Braff clearly wants us to like Andrew, and it doesn't happen. Zach is much better being funny rather than acting all melancholy about his life while indy bands play on the soundtrack.
Natalie Portman plays motor-mouth Sam, a compulsive liar who use to ice skate but now makes funny noises whenever she is nervous in the waiting room of a neurologist. Natalie Portman's probably chose this project to build her indie credibility and her work here is uneven as her character is damaged by Braff's dialogue. Portman is a very talented actress but Garden State stops being watchable when she enters the picture. Portman's character was so atrociously written: a cross between a cute bubble gum teenager and a young adult trying so hard to be interesting and far too sentimental. Everything else from then on was downhill.
I tried to like this movie, but honestly the kooky-girl-wakes-up-sleepwalking-guy story does very little for me now. Most of us have probably tried to write this novel in our minds or in real life when we were in our late teens or early twenties where the lonely misunderstood dude gets lucky because some lively spirit has decided to talk to him and open up to him, thus causing him to open up as well. My personal experiences have since served to quash such fanciful notions, so I require extra effort to believe in this kind of thing these days. Braff, however, is not cursed with such self-awareness. He apparently believes that if he presents a weird look and keeps the background noisy with the guitar strumming of pop groups like Coldplay, he'll achieve instant credibility as an 'artist'. Unfortunately, he has succeeded in this, as professional reviews can attest.
The screenplay is flawed to the point of being patronizing as it includes half-hearted philosophizing that tries way too hard to make a point about life that just isn't insightful. Yeah, life is hard, but you're off your drugs, you're in love, and, aside from your mother dying, you really don't have any problems. A good third of the movie is spent on a quest, looking for what we don't know, and once the goal is reached, we are only left to wonder why they spent so much time searching for it. It could have been very sweet and moving, but came out as confusing and anticlimactic.
After the movie reaches a perfectly good ending that leaves us room to speculate on the characters' fates, it tacks on another ending that wraps everything up, ties a bow on it and sticks it in one of those gift bags with confetti flowing out the top. The ending is cliché especially when there's no dramatic tension coming from the story itself. We know that Andrew Largeman has a flight back to LA that he has to get on, but why is it such a big deal for him to go back to LA? Is his life there really so important that he can't stay with Sam? There is just no dramatic energy to create the tension that the character seems to be facing; it just comes out of nowhere as a vehicle for Largeman to spout off some final words of quasi-philosophical baloney. The decision is not as hard as Braff wants it to be. The movie is nothing more than a teen flick that pretends to be deep and at times gets to the level of a bad romantic comedy.
This film does have a sort of youthful indie feel and maybe that's why people give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that it has something to say. Unfortunately it has NOTHING new to say. The vibe has already been hacked to death by every indie film-maker out there. It falls into all the pits and traps of indie movies; It's slow, inconsistent, tries to jump from comedy to drama and back every two seconds and fails every time, there's a subject but no story. The kind of comedy this includes are humping dogs, shirts that match the background, random stuff on ceilings, being wasted, odd noises with random gestures, a mother dating someone her son's age and a knight eating a bowl of cereal. So unless you find this stuff funny then I highly recommend this movie to you.
SAY! If I was a kid in the suburbs and was disillusioned and went to the BRAIN doctor, will I meet a hottie who tells me her life story and changes my life forever? No! If there even is a hottie she'll probably just get pissed at me for leering at her. More likely, there'll just be a drooling lobotomized fat man there and he WILL be interested in me. All I'm saying is that this film endeavored to cheer me up and for that I can never forgive it.
The indie music is utterly forgettable because I don't like wussy crap for losers. It's even more shameful because Portman's character up and SAYS to the main character when they first meet that she's listening to The Shins and tells him "this song will change your life." Well it didn't change mine, Natalie! Maybe it would if I thought there was a possibility of fucking you if I pretended to like it though! Ah! Now I understand the character motivation!
I will give credit to Braff, who, by writing, directing, and starring, has accomplished a Herculean task. If the film falls down in places, that's an understandable problem from a first time film-maker who elected to wear three hats. There's enough promise in Garden State to hint at better things to come. As long as you go into Garden State with low expectations, its capacity to disappoint will be limited.
I'd go *1/2.