Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 18, 2004
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Braffed Off

I’m in a New Jersey state of mind. The Garden State is good-looking but empty.

By KRISTIAN LIN

Those of you who know Zach Braff know him as the dorky, likable star of Scrubs, one of the few watchable sitcoms left on network tv, and a better example of the form than Arrested Development (shhhh!). Garden State is his debut as a filmmaker, and he shows a real gift for the visual side of that job. The movie’s filled with any number of striking visuals. A single scene set in a swimming pool yields a bounty of terrific shots: the hero left standing half-naked and exposed while his friends jump in, an overhead shot of the swimmers migrating to one end while two of them occupy the other end, and a romantic conversation in which cinematographer Lawrence Sher gives the pool light an unearthly glow.

His visuals are good at making you say, “Wow, look at that,” but they’re equally good at making you laugh. We see one character wearing a shirt the exact same color and pattern as the wallpaper behind him, another one shooting a flaming arrow straight up in the air and trying to get his friends to dodge it, and a doctor who has so many diplomas and plaques on his office wall that he’s started putting them on the ceiling. Braff’s instinctive sense of framing and composition is daunting, and it’s the reason why this film has one of the best trailers in recent memory.

Unfortunately, Braff makes the mistake of thinking that his movie’s actually about something. He stars as Andrew Largeman, a dutifully toiling Hollywood actor who returns to his New Jersey hometown for his mother’s funeral. His quietly tyrannizing dad (Ian Holm) is a psychiatrist who has kept his son on some form of psychiatric medication for most of his life. During the four days he’s back home, Large elects to go off his pills.

Experiencing the world unmedicated is supposed to help him change his life, but the movie doesn’t tell us what he was like while he was on his meds, so we can’t judge how his decision is affecting him. If anything, he still looks medicated, as Large drifts through life and reacts in an emotionally disengaged way to the strange people he meets. The other major characters are also supposed to be helping him in some mysterious way. They include a pathological liar (Natalie Portman) whom he meets in a doctor’s office and falls in love with, and a childhood friend (Peter Sarsgaard), now a small-time scam artist who lives and smokes weed with his mom (Jean Smart). Braff is a capable straight man and lets his fellow actors grab the spotlight a bit too much, but the real flaw is in the conception of these roles. These characters don’t come across as actual human beings. They’re just vehicles for quirky behavior that’s sometimes funny and sometimes deeply irritating. Eventually, the movie degenerates into a pile of psychobabble; Large finally puts his issues behind him, and the filmmaker gives you no clue as to how he does that or even exactly what his issues are.

Braff clearly shows here that he’s an original new directing talent, but he badly needs to collaborate with a better writer. Or, in light of the movie’s beautiful and esoterically chosen soundtrack (The Shins are in fine form), he could make some killer music videos. None of that, unfortunately, alleviates the fact that Garden State is a splendid edifice populated by cardboard cutouts that we’re supposed to mistake for people.


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