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Movies: Garden State

Much as "alternative" music has become the mainstream, "quirky" movies are now so common that they have become a genre unto themselves. That's fine by me, as many of my favorite flicks are those by the quirkmeisters: Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, David Lynch and the like. But for every Spike Jonze there's a dozen filmmakers who woo guys like me by shoehorning a dozen non-sequiturs into a mundane storyline and then showcasing them all in the commercials. When watching trailers, I am chary of any film that wears its zany on its sleeve.

So despite the fact that the preview made Garden State look like exactly the kind of film I enjoy, I was fairly certain that it was all an elaborate trap. Surprise! Garden State is exactly the kind of film I enjoy.

All the capsule reviews describe the film like so: Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) has been on antidepressants since childhood, but goes cold turkey while home for his mother's funeral and visiting with his childhood friends. This makes Garden State sound very high-concept: man stops taking his meds, wacky hijinx ensue! Fortunately, the film is considerably more low-concept than the one-liner would have you believe -- while hijinx do ensue and there's no shortage of wacky, everything is muted by Braff's deadpan and almost somnambulistic performance.

And much of the film is devoted to character studies, albeit of oddball and somewhat superficial characters. The most important character quickly becomes Sam (Natalie Portman), whom Andrew meets while having his leg humped by a companion dog in the waiting room of a neurologist. (It's that kind of movie.) There's no great chemistry between the two, but they are both so idiosyncratic that it seems clear that each is the only person who could possibly stand the other for long periods of time. Throw in a couple of Andrew's kooky high school friends (one is a gravedigger, another lucked into a bajillion dollars), give the whole kit and caboodle a slightly hallucinogenic feel, and you have a film that can be described by the word "comedy" preceded by any of "ensemble," "romantic," "screwball" or "stoner."

Shortly after the film began, The Queen leaned over to me and whispered, of Zach Braff, "This guy is really funny -- he's on that TV show I like, Scrubs." My first thought was "even if he's fabulous, how does a guy on a b-list sitcom wind up as the star of a major motion picture opposite Natalie Portman?" The answer, I discovered afterwards by looking up Garden State on IMDB, is that the guy on the b-list sitcom writes and directs said movie himself. Much as I enjoyed Garden State I don't think it was perfect -- I'd give it three-and-a-half stars out of four -- but as directorial debut it's about as impressive as they come.

(One last comment. I'm not one to rave about a movie's music, since I generally consider the whole CD-to-motion-picture tie-in aspect to be little more than a cynical marketing scheme, but the soundtrack for Garden State can only be described as "crazy great": Zero 7, The Shins, Thievery Corporation, and a Postal Service cover that almost improves upon the original. By the time they got around to playing Frou Frou I was convinced that the person who had assembled the music for the film was, in fact, me. )

Note: The comments for this post got deleted. Sorry, all.

Posted on September 09, 2004 to Movies