- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

Two movies this year have lightheartedly attempted to universalize for outsiders the mixture of pride and embarrassment that native New Jerseyites feel for the Garden State.

Both had promise, and both eventually fizzle into varying degrees of Hollywood cliche on the trip from autobiographical absorption to feature fiction.

First came Kevin Smith’s “Jersey Girl,” a romantic comedy that was charming but incredible. In theaters today is “Garden State,” a thinker-laugher from Zach Braff (of the sitcom “Scrubs”), who wrote and directed the movie and triple-tasks in the lead role of Andrew Largeman, a depressive 20-something who recalls Dustin Hoffman’s alienated moper in “The Graduate.”

Just as Mr. Smith toyed with the familiar association of “Jersey girl” — he meant a prepubescent daughter, not trashy bar bait — Mr. Braff has more on his mind than the farm-dotted state’s official designation.

Mr. Braff is evoking “salad days” here, and it’s the recovery of youth and innocence and a sense of place that’s on his mind. The movie crackles with ideas like these, but they’re oversold by a filmmaker still too green to escape the shadow of influences such as director Wes Anderson.

When not employing busy camera tricks, pointless motion manipulations and God’s-eye cinematography, Mr. Braff sells with soundtrack. At times, the movie is reduced to creative video for hip acoustic music from the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, the Shins and Nick Drake.

Mr. Braff, who looks and sounds an awful lot like Ray Romano, is so intent on demonstrating the catholicity of his taste in music and movies that he hogs breathing room from his characters.

It’s a shame. They’re compelling characters.

The great, young character actor Peter Sarsgaard (“Shattered Glass”) and Armando Riesco play Largeman’s childhood friends, regular Jersey boys with interesting demons and shortcut entrepreneurial schemes, one of which pays off with nouveau-riche excess.

And there’s Largeman himself. “Large,” as one friend calls him, has been besotted with antidepressants as potent as Lithium since age 9. The prescribing psychiatrist was none other than his father (Ian Holm, no longer in Bilbo Baggins drag), an inappropriate intimacy that is the sole remaining link in the estranged relationship the two have had since Dr. Dad marched young Andy off to boarding school.

To drive home Largeman’s not-so-smiley Prozac haze, Mr. Braff sets the tone of “Garden State” with an imaginary disaster sequence. A commercial jetliner is taking a plunge, its passengers are in high panic, and Largeman is as cool as a cucumber, seemingly embracing his fate as though it’s one more absurdity in a life full of absurdities.

It’s not reality that bites here; rather, it’s overmedicated unreality.

An air of drugs (both legal and nonlegal) and suicide casually and jokily hovers over the rest of the movie. Largeman suspects it was more than a bathtub mishap that killed his mother, whose death calls him home from Los Angeles. He’s struggling to make good on an acting career that began with a made-for-TV turn as a mentally retarded quarterback — yet one more absurdity.

Home, of course, is suburban New Jersey, and if that makes you think refineries and turnpikes and strip malls, Mr. Braff has undeveloped, tree-lined neighborhoods in store for you.

Still, he isn’t above a good-natured ribbing of Jersey denizens. Mr. Braff is subtly deft when he pokes fun at Jersey males’ predilection for careers in law enforcement and “criminal justice.”

The wild card of the movie is Natalie Portman, whose spunky Samantha, a chatty epileptic with a weakness for white lies, meets Largeman in a neurologist’s waiting room. The two hit it off quickly and eventually become lovers.

Sam is no Jersey girl. She’s no reality girl, either. She’s the great dramatic cop-out. Mr. Braff needed her to unlock Largeman from his drug-numbed abyss, a theme that’s given literal representation in the form of a giant excavation site.

How many times have we seen this in movies before — the free-spirited gal who frees the spirit of an inhibited guy? Mr. Braff calls this fantasy scenario exactly what it isn’t: real life. It’s a serious shortcoming in a script that urges us to face up to reality without the crutch of mood-elevating prescription drugs.

“Garden State” is a terrific movie, right up to the point that a movie colony hack from the Golden State takes possession of Mr. Braff and nearly ruins it.

***

TITLE: “Garden State”

RATING: R (Profanity; drug use; mild sexuality)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Zach Braff. Produced by Pamela Abdy, Gary Gilbert, Dan Halsted and Richard Klubeck. Cinematography by Lawrence Sher. Original music by Chad Fisher.

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes.

WEB SITE: https://www2.foxsearchlight.com/gardenstate

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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