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Zach Braff
Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm, Peter Sarsgaard, Alex Burns, Jackie Hoffman, Michael Weston, Christopher Carley, Armando Riesco, Amy Ferguson, Trisha LaFache
Writing Credits:
Zach Braff

Writer/Director Zach Braff delivers “an Oscar®-worthy performance” (CBS-TV Chicago) opposite a “wacky and endearing” (Newsweek) Natalie Portman in this quirky, coming-of-age comedy. Twentysomething, emotionally detached Andrew “Large” Largeman (Braff) hasn’t been home to New Jersey in nine years. Now, as Large attempts to re-connect with a variety of odd acquaintances – including his father – he decides to risk getting high on the most potent and unpredictable drug there is … life! Co-starring Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm and Method Man, Garden State is “marvelous fun” (Rolling Stone)

Box Office:
$2.5 million.
Opening Weekend
$201.115 thousand on 9 screens.
Domestic Gross
$26.728 million.

Rated R

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby 2.0

Runtime: 103 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date: 12/28/2004

• Commentary by writer-director-actor Zach Braff and Natalie Portman
• Commentary by writer-director-actor Zach Braff, director of photography Lawrence Sher, editor Myron Kerstein, and production designer Judy Becker
• 16 Deleted Scenes with optional commentary
• Making-of Featurette
• Outtakes and Bloopers
• Soundtrack Promotional Spot


Mitsubishi WS65315 65" TV; Pioneer VSXD409 Home Theater Receiver; Sony DVP NC665P 5 Disc DVD player; KLH Home Theater Speakers


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Garden State (2004)

Reviewed by Brian Ludovico (January 3, 2005)

Garden State begins in Los Angeles, where struggling actor Andrew Largeman (writer/director/producer Zach Braff) idly wiles away his days between going on auditions and shifts at the local trendy Vietnamese restaurant. He’d had one big moment to shine, playing a retarded quarterback on a television show some five or six years ago, but since then, it’s been a real struggle. He’s all alone in Los Angeles, no real friends, no family there to support him, and no real relationship with those he left at home in New Jersey. He isn’t angry or upset about his situation; he just lives with it, in a form of quiet, sad indifference. The only physical reaction he has to his life is lightning flash-type of headaches, there and gone in an instant.

One day, he hears his estranged father’s voice on his answering machine doling out some terrible news: his mother is dead. He doesn’t cry, he doesn’t rush to pick up the phone, he doesn’t even sigh. He just stays even keel, in an emotional coma. One thing is clear to him: he has to return to New Jersey, his home state, and see his friends and family for the first time in nearly a decade. Even at the funeral, Andrew seems isolated emotionally and physically, almost as if he’s watching it in the third person. Back at the house, he hardly even reacts to those around him, even though they’re family members he hasn’t seen in years. He seems to gloss over even his own father (Ian Holm), knowing that they need to talk about the deceased, but he does tell him about the headaches. His father, a psychologist, suggests a visit to a local physician the next morning.

When he was at the funeral, Andrew ran into his friend from school Mark (Peter Saarsgard), who invited him to a party at another acquaintance’s house that night. It’s at this party that Andrew starts to recognize that he’s been medicated into being a total blank emotional slate. He never laughs, he never cries, he doesn’t get angry, happy or sad. He has just been walking through his life, watching it, not really experiencing it. Yes, it’s been relatively pain free, but it’s been devoid of any real joy, too. Andrew decides he wants to change.

As his father suggested, he visits the local physician who informs him that there’s nothing wrong with him, except for the fact that he’s been on a multitude of psychological pharmaceuticals for far, far longer than is healthy. Andrew’s been on lithium, Prozac, and Zoloft, and those are just the medications with less than five syllables. His father, the psychologist, prescribed them when Andrew was in his early teens, and now he’s in his middle twenties. It’s these drugs, Andrew decides, that have ground his emotional wellbeing into a smooth stone, unable to react to anything, unfeeling and indifferent. He decides he’s not going to take them anymore.

Thanks to an extremely awkward - and funny - situation, it’s in the doctor’s waiting room, that he happens to meet an enthusiastic, friendly, beautiful young lady named Samantha (Natalie Portman). Within minutes, she’s sharing advice, her headphones, laughs and thoughts with Andrew, completely open and engaging. Andrew, obviously, isn’t used to this sort of behavior. Andrew offers her a ride home, and their friendship is born. She brings him to her house, introduces him to her mother and (African) brother and her two Dobermans. Andrew accompanies Sam to her backyard, where she has to bury a hamster. Andrew tells Sam about his reason for being home, and something strange happens: Sam cries. She’s known Andrew for a matter of hours, and she’s done more crying for a woman she never met than Andrew did for the woman who gave him life. It quickly becomes apparent that these two are totally opposite people, one an emotional robot, the other an extremely empathetic emotional sponge. Will being without his medication and with Sam bring Andrew back to the world of the emotional living before he heads back to Los Angeles only three days hence? This is the movies, folks, so the ending shouldn’t be that hard to guess.

The trick is to make that journey interesting, and Garden State certainly accomplishes that. Braff’s script is literally laugh out loud funny in spots, utilizing several different styles of humor with proficiency to keep the story light on its feet. I particularly liked the absurdist moments, like the knight in the kitchen or the dog in the doctor’s office, but character moments like Mark’s mother or the guy at the hardware store work really well, too. I also appreciated that the film sort of flouts independent film convention, never feeling artsy or pretentious, from beginning to decidedly happy ending. Braff, as a first time director, doesn’t even try a bunch of weird camera crap, instead focusing more on the actors and the characters. In some ways, it’s almost Ron Haward-esque: directed without any real signature style, almost boringly.

One of the facets that makes Garden State stand out is the powerful, nuanced performance by Natalie Portman, easily the highlight of her career. With each movie she seems to continue to clean the stink of Star Wars prequels from her resume with more daring, challenging roles; read the buzz about her performance in Closer. From the very introduction of her character, we can see why Andrew would be drawn to her, even in spite of his emotional numbness. She’s funny, she’s pretty, she’s open if not honest, but she isn’t perfect, either. This role was in serious danger of being a “Mid Nineties Winona Ryder” part, but Portman as an actress and Braff as a director keep the character from becoming the ‘endearingly quirky sprite.’ Instead, they keep Sam as close to authentic as possible, as she’s more off-beat than straight up weirdo. Portman plays it with a wonderful balance of powerful emotional resonance and light heartedness that makes her character one of the most charming in recent memory. Though it might be an outside shot, she should have a chance at an Oscar nomination.

Garden State isn’t perfect, by any stretch. To put it delicately, the film has a somewhat leisurely pace through its first forty minutes, as it feels like nothing really ever happens to Andrew. Braff’s script is probably constructed this way, as it sort of lets us in on the somewhat aimless, pointless feeling Andrew suffers from all the time. The scenes between Andrew and his father are also problematic because Holm is horribly miscast. I don’t understand why you’d cast someone with a British accent to play a North Jersey Jewish guy, but I suppose enough Americans get cast in roles with British accents that it all evens out. Holm also plays the father with far less depth than the rest of the characters, and as a result, the interaction doesn’t have the same organic feeling as it does with the rest of the cast. Most of these scenes are short, but there is one pivotal moment regarding Andrew’s past that really suffers because of these problems.

Those shortcomings are minor, though, and easily overcome by the many strengths of the movie. Garden State is a movie that highlights the continually growing gap between Hollywood studio product movies and independent projects. Unfortunately for Garden State, it’s likely to get lost after the awards season under the glare of the next crop of big-ticket sequels and event films, few of which will stick around longer than their two week run at number one in the box office. If you’re looking for a genuinely romantic, sincerely funny movie to take a break from the overwhelming effects fests or event movies, definitely check out Garden State.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus B

Garden State appears in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD and has been anamorphically enhanced for 16X9 televisions. From a strictly technical perspective, DVD’s like this one are, for me, the most difficult to review. Because by the nature of the film, the technical aspects of the disc are best described as “unremarkably good.”

Sharpness and fine detail are just as good as we’d expect them to be, never fuzzing or breaking up. The color comes from a very natural palette, so don’t expect Garden State to pop off the screen with explosive brights and neons. The colors look great, but how effusive over green leaves or brown dirt or a pink shirt can one get? Overall picture clarity is perfectly fine for a movie filmed on film and not on a digital medium, but it isn’t exactly a visually challenging film, so this is about all we can expect. While there may not be a plethora of video highlights on Garden State, there aren’t any glaring errors to hammer here either. The only minor problem was one minor instance of positive artifacting noise during the wake. Beyond that, the picture is perfectly serviceable, just not memorable.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is much the same way. Movies like Garden State - films focused on character study and dialogue-based interaction defining the story and movies without special effects - never seem to benefit from the surround mix, but they don’t suffer from it, either.

As one might expect, the film’s audio elements reside largely in the forward soundstage, and even there are somewhat unimaginative. The dialogue eschews any semblance of directional effects, which leaves almost the entire movie in the center channel. The front lateral speakers mainly contain the film’s hipster soundtrack, which admittedly is recreated quite well. We do get some minor activity in the side speakers as Andrew starts his motorcycle or drives around, but that stays all in front of the viewer. Rear channels are almost completely dead, save for some of the weather effects during the quarry rainstorm. No activity in the film activates the LFE output at any time in the film’s 102 minutes, not that it needed to. Again, the audio serves the film perfectly well, it just doesn’t blow the covers off the speakers.

When I opened the bonus material menu, I headed straight for the sixteen deleted scenes. They’re available for playback separately or as a convenient ‘play all’ reel, and each of the scenes is available with or without commentary by Zach Braff, Lawrence Sher, Myron Kerstein and Judy Becker. Each of the scenes’ commentaries reveal things like the context of the scene within the movie, where the scenes sprung from creatively, and the reasons for deletion. It’s not difficult to figure out why they were excised without the commentary. Many are cut for pacing or character redundancy; a couple are deleted because of the monkey wrench they would throw in the tonal works of the story. The best scene, the only one I wished had remained in the movie, was “Musical Themed Bar Mitzvah,” featuring Zach Braff’s dad.

Garden State contains one of my favorite DVD features, the four minute gag reel. This is a good insight into the atmosphere of the production, as there were lots of laughs and generally a very loose vibe. I particularly enjoyed the outtakes with the dog, Ice.

The reason I didn’t check right into The Making of Garden State featurette was because I figured it would be the standard twelve to seventeen minute EPK puff piece, the kind of worthless filler you see on HBO in between movies. I was glad to find out that I was wrong. This featurette runs twenty six minutes and change, and it’s definitely not the usual press junket clips glued together so everyone talks about how amazing the movie is. It’s filmed on a digital handheld camera, walking around the sets and basically getting ad-hoc footage of anyone who was around. Sure, you get to hear from Braff and Portman and various producers and assistants, but this even gets down to the craft services truck. One of the more interesting portions features the design and construction of the Ark set. The featurette isn’t exactly the Sundance Channel’s “Anatomy of a Scene,” but it’s refreshing, almost indirectly informative and enjoyable nonetheless.

Garden State also features not one but two commentary tracks. The first one features Zach Braff and Natalie Portman, and it’s one of the easiest commentary tracks to listen to and enjoy I’ve ever come across. Generally, I don’t like commentary tracks because they are overly self-impressed and pretentious, or overly technically based, or just plain bland. That’s not the case with this track. We learn that Braff and Portman went to camp together in New Jersey when they were little, and their long relationship really comes through in their interaction on the track (and in the film). Since most of the movie consists of scenes with Largeman and Sam, there is a lot of material for them to reminisce about, including what they did and didn’t like. While Braff is rightfully proud of his work, he isn’t completely absorbed in how good a movie he’s made. The best part of the commentary is Natalie Portman saying “We used to play the vagina game or the penis game at camp.” Nice.

The other track also contains Zach Braff, but this time he’s wearing less of his actor hat and more of his writer / director hat, to fit in with his track mates, who are more of the behind-the-cameras ilk. Along with Braff is the director of photography Lawrence Sher, editor Myron Kerstein and production designer Judy Becker. Just by simple numbers, this is a far more crowded track, and for me, considerably harder to listen to. With this cast of characters, it’s no surprise that we get a far more “nuts and bolts” perspective of the film. I can understand the drive behind such a track on more technically complicated productions, but for simple little character movies like this one, elements like editing and production design should pretty much just stay out of the way. We’re talking about picking furniture for Sam’s room, not designing the armor for King Arthur’s knights. Anyway, as we might expect, we get a good deal of discussion on challenges inherent to various locations from filming, like the pool or the quarry, concepts for frame compositions, reasons for edits, story sources…pretty much any topic about the making of Garden State is touched on in some way or another. There is also some very brief discussion about a longer cut of the film, some twenty plus minutes longer in fact, but judging by the deleted scenes, I think Kerstein did a commendable job in refining the film.

The final supplement is a soundtrack promotional spot, basically a thirty second commercial for the film’s somewhat pretentiously cool soundtrack. If we’re going to include promotional supplements, where the hell is the film’s trailer? Nowhere to be found.

Critical buzz might give one the impression that Garden State is the greatest thing to hit celluloid since Technicolor, and Internet message board blather would decry it as overrated, pointless, clichéd art house crap. The truth, obviously, lies somewhere in the middle. No, Zach Braff is not the auteur savior of Tinseltown, but he’s no hack, either. The movie is an entertaining and refreshing little love story that definitely elevates itself beyond the standard disposable rom-com noise, on the strength of an original, funny, occasionally poignant script and a powerful performance by Portman. The DVD, though neither technically astonishing nor abhorrent, is reasonably full with nice extras and available online for a decent price. On the strength of the film alone, Garden State is an easy recommendation.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.129 Stars Number of Votes: 31
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