Garden State

Director: Zach Braff
Writer: Zach Braff
Year: 2004
Cast: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard


The opening scene of Garden State shows its central character, Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff), bored by his own inevitable death. He is on an aeroplane which is about to crash. Everybody around him is panicking, crying, clutching at oxygen masks, but he sits there vacant. This is a dream. He wakes up to the sound of his phone ringing in his sterile white room. He is told his mother is dead. This elicits no response.

Largeman is an out of work actor, moonlighting at a Vietnamese restaurant in Los Angeles, but returns to his home in New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. He is detached from everything, standing to the side during the service, evidently more at home among the gravestones than the mourners. His interactions are meaningless greetings that he struggles to take an interest in. His expression is one of perpetual, but varied, confusion. He is invited to a party by old friends and it passes him by, literally. Braff opts to shoot much of the scene in fast motion, with Largeman static on the sofa.

Garden State: Quirky, well-executed but not quite all there.

After the party, Largeman goes to see a neurologist; he has been having instantaneous headaches, like lightning storms. In the reception room he meets Sam (Natalie Portman). She is at first extremely annoying, but has a certain charm, probably due to being played by Natalie Portman. She tells him to listen to an incredible song by The Shins, one of those awkward moments that are annoying even if you like the song, as I did. They meet up again afterwards and spend the rest of the film falling in love. That is not a spoiler.

There is a lot of goofball comedy, some good some bad. Quite what the purpose of Titembay (Ato Essandoh) is, I guess we’ll never know. There are also plenty of good moments between Largeman and Sam, and well measured scenes, such as when she is burying her pet hamster. It is a deliberately awkward romance – both characters have underlying psychological issues – but one that becomes assured as the film progresses. Braff is undoubtedly better at being awkward than Portman, while Portman upstages him for the more serious scenes. Unfortunately, this means there is only a short section in the middle when they appear on the same level. The plot meanders but eventually it gets where it needs to go.

Garden State is something of a hipster epic, wildly popular in some circles, almost managing to be meaningful but never quite getting there. The romantic element is strong but too much else is filler. Even so, there are some great shots and little details; Largeman’s vintage green motorcycle, complete with side-car, is one. Braff’s writing and direction are assured, so it is somewhat surprising that he hasn’t made another film since. He is still young, so I’m sure he will.

A review of Garden State would be incomplete without mentioning the soundtrack, which seems to be as celebrated as the film itself. It is rare that you can say a selection of popular music is perfect for a film, but here it does work wonderfully. It matches the mood. You get the impression that Largeman would have chosen the same songs if he was making the film, which in this case is how it should be, and, in a sense, how it is.

Rob Dickie