In an opening scene of Zach Braff’s film, Garden State , a plane is spiraling downward to its fiery doom, while in the cabin Braff’s character Andrew Largeman calmly adjusts the air control nozzle above his seat. Upon awakening from this bizarre dream Largeman’s nightmare comes to life when his father phones to inform him of his mother’s death and he reacts by quietly heading off to his job as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant.
Jarring contrasts like this are at the heart of Garden State, a brash, moving and wickedly funny dark comedy that Braff, a veteran of NBC’s Scrubs , wrote and directed himself. In his directorial debut, Braff tells the story of twenty-somethings who are lost not only in the world of adulthood but to themselves as well.
Largeman, a struggling actor in LA, returns home to New Jersey to attend his mother’s funeral, but his visit with family and friends re-opens old wounds—and creates some new ones too. His hometown friends and he live chemically controlled lives. Through prescribed anti-depressants and recreational drugs they dull their world and numb themselves to life’s ambiguities.
Upon his return home, Largeman discovers that his paraplegic mother died by drowning in the bathtub (hints of suicide appear throughout the film, though they’re never confirmed). Since the onset of his mother’s paralysis when he was just nine, his psychiatrist father medicated him with dozens of anti-psychotics that have kept the raw feelings at bay. As a result, he has never quite dealt with the painful feelings spawned by the events surrounding her disability. He is an emotionally frozen actor who not only can’t feel; he can’t even fake real emotions. Unsurprisingly, his career is stalled–the only role he’s landed is that of a retarded boy in a melodrama.
When he travels back to New Jersey, Largeman leaves his drugs behind and his feelings begin to surface. But going off his medication also brings on blinding headaches and while sitting in a neurologist’s waiting room he meets Sam (Natalie Portman) an epileptic who talks incessantly and is a pathological liar. She pushes Andrew to share all that is beneath the surface, even to the point of reacting with tears when Andrew tells her the story of his mother’s death. Together they pull out each other’s emotions and forge a somewhat therapeutic bond. Though the manic, chattering Sam is an interesting complement to the highly depressed Andrew, the story strains the limits of credibility at times by making too much out of their short-term romance–it comes off as sappy and contrived.
Still, Sam is nicely played by Portman, and Peter Sarsgaard, is convincing as Andrew’s grave digging–and grave robbing–burnout friend, Mark. Garden State makes a powerful case against psychiatric curative culture that all of us participate in to some extent. But while medicine can help mask much of the feelings that are crucial to being fully alive, Sam’s constant banter also reminds us that we can hide behind our words by filling empty spaces with shallow, pointless chatter as well. At times, Garden State goes too far in banging home its message about the dulling effects of anti-depressants–many people legitimately need medication to remain stable and, unfortunately, I can imagine lots of bi-polar teens throwing out their lithium after seeing this film. But, overall, Braff’s first foray into writing, directing and starring in his own film yields well-crafted and hysterically funny results.