Garden State review by Mike Long

Many years ago, Public Enemy cautioned us "Don't Believe the Hype". While I'm sure that their message was of a political nature, I've always applied the warning to the entertainment industry. In my jaded view, anything that becomes very popular, or receives overwhelming critical praise can't be any good. This was the approach that I took towards Garden State, especially since it was written by, directed by, and stars some guy from a TV sitcom. Well, my snobbish attitude has been proven wrong again, as Garden State is a truly mesmerizing film, deftly mixing comedy and drama into a very satisfying package.

In the film, Zach Braff plays Andrew "Large" Largeman, a struggling actor living in Los Angeles. Andrew is summoned home to New Jersey by his father (Ian Holm), who informs Andrew that his wheelchair-bound mother has died. Aside from the obviously sad nature of this trip, the journey is an awkward one of Andrew, as he hasn't been home in nearly a decade. Following the funeral, Andrew attempts to avoid his father (and any discussions concerning his mother) and joins his old friends Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and Dave (Alex Burns) (both who works as gravediggers) in some partying and exploring of his hometown. While at a medical clinic, Andrew meets a spirited young woman named Sam (Natalie Portman). As Andrew gets to know Sam, and he sees what life in his hometown has done to Mark, Andrew begins to reflect on his own life and reveals several secrets from both the past and the present.

I usually have no time for indie films which show us a "slice of life", because if I truly wanted to see a "slice of life", I'd simply look around me. Garden State is that rare film that brings the audience a story that feels real on one level, the characters and locations have a familiar feeling, yet the specifics of the story are nearly surreal and are thus very engaging. Braff apparently understands that real life is often very odd and he captures this beautifully in his film. Many filmmakers focus too much on making their situations seem real, and thus they end up being stale. How often do you find yourself saying, "The strangest thing happened to me today."? That's the kind of world which is reflected in Garden State. The death of Andrew's mother sets off a series of events which are both odd and fortuitous for the characters involved. As the film opens, Andrew is merely an observer, or at the least, a pawn, to these events (for reasons which are explained in the movie), but as the film proceeds, he begins to become more involved, and thus his life begins to change.

This combination of the familiar and the unusual is coupled with Braff's coupling of comedy with pathos. Once again, this is a reflection of reality, as Andrew encounters some very sad and dramatic situations (his mother's death, obviously), but there are also some very funny moments in the film as well. To be honest, I was quite surprised by how serious the movie got at times. Every time that it seems to be heading directly for Comedyville, Braff drops another dramatic bomb and the sudden twists are quite effective. Some may look at Garden State and find it to be overly quirky, but many will see the truth reflected in its eccentric ideas.

The powerful script gets a nice boost from the impressive cast. Braff, who appears to be the love-child of David Duchovny and Garry Shandling, is very good as Andrew, as he competently portrays a man who appears to be lost in his own world. Portman, who I usually don't like, is quite charming as Sam, a damaged girl who immediately finds a kindred spirit in Andrew. The real standout in the film is Sarsgaard, who seems to get better with every role. He plays a character who is both likable and despicable at the same time, and thus, the audience hangs on his every move as we attempt to decide how we feel about him. Garden State is the best Kevin Smith movie that I've seen since Chasing Amy. However, Smith had nothing at all to do with this film and Garden State only proves the difficulty in making a quirky film which is both moving and funny.

Garden State grows onto DVD courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The transfer on this disc looks very good and doesn't hint at the film's relatively low budget. There is some very slight grain on the image, but otherwise the picture is sharp and clear. The colors look good and the image is well-framed. There is some slight artifacting, but otherwise the picture looks good. The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. This track delivers clear dialogue and sound effects with no hissing or distortion. The majority of the audio comes from the front and center channels, but there is some nice surround sound action at times, and the songs on the soundtrack sound very good.

The Garden State DVD carries a handful of extras. We start with a pair of audio commentaries. The first features writer/director/actor Zach Braff and actor Natalie Portman. This is an interesting commentary where the pair share a good deal of information about the film, touching on other actors and locations. However, there is a great deal of talk about their own performances, especially Portman's, and this gets somewhat boring at times. The second commentary track features Braff, director of photography Lawrence Sher, editor Myron Kerstein, and production designer Judy Becker. I found this scene to be more compelling, although it is more technical. Here, Braff and crew discuss the locations and how each scene was shot, and they also touch on the thematic elements in the movie, and they pointed out some things that I didn't notice during my initial viewing. The DVD contains 16 deleted scenes, with a PLAY ALL feature, and optional audio commentary by Braff, Sher, Kerstein, and Becker. The scenes total 32 minutes. These deleted scenes are fairly representative of the movie, as some are funny and some are powerful. There are some new ideas introduced here and some scenes are quite humorous, especially Kenny the Cop. "The Making of Garden State" (28 minutes) is a non-traditional featurette, as it contains no clips from the film. Instead, it's made up entirely of behind-the-scenes video footage, shot entirely on location. We get comments from the cast and crew -- most of the crew I'd venture to guess -- who talk about the specific scene on which they are working. This has a very personal "you are there!" feeling and doesn't feel overproduced. The segment looks at the sets, the actors, locations, and rehearsals. The only drawback here is that we don't learn very much about where Braff got his ideas, and we learn little about how the script made it to the screen. The extras are rounded out by a 3 minute "Outtakes/Blooper" reel.

8 out of 10 Jackasses

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