Alex Worsnip 07/03/2005
The idea of Zach Braff - best known for his lead role in the funny but unspectacular Scrubs - writing, directing and starring in his own film seems, if interesting, rather over ambitious for the hitherto unproved American star. The news that it was going to be an attempt at a film with some measure of "indie" (in the loosest sense imaginable; Garden State is indie film like Coldplay are indie music - unsurprisingly they are here on the soundtrack along with Zero 7 and The Shins, the latter being specifically name checked in the script in a move that treads a dangerous line between delighting and a shameless bid for credibility) further laid the dynamite required for a possible explosive disaster.
Yet, against all the odds, Garden State really does work. Braff pours his heart into the script and into the character, painting an at times simplistic but also identifiable and subtly insightful picture of a minor Hollywood actor returning to his hometown due to personal tragedy. Though Natalie Portman is given a somewhat cliched "kooky" role she manages to put the most interesting spin on the stereotypically offbeat, shy-yet-confident quasi-indie girl since Audrey Tatou portrayed the title role in the superb "Amelie," and a combination of perfect casting and spot-on, if predictable portrayal, means her character shines in a way that embodies everything that is great about (some) American people in an age where we might be more disposed to notice everything that isn't. You can see that Braff envisioned her in the role (he was in the uniquely enviable position of being able to write his own romance with her!) and the two have considerable on-screen chemistry, rumoured to be spilling over into real life.
The issues tackled are hardly boundary-pushing: depression, maturity, confronting the past, and so forth, but they are handled with verve, and for what it is: a relatively mainstream but charmingly touching and emotionally profound film, it pushes all the right buttons. It is easy to find points of identification in the film and thus it is personal and warm, and the conclusion is touching while limiting the sappiness given the plot-line. Indeed, to extend the Coldplay metaphor, like their best songs, you could view it cynically but in the end it tugs on emotional heart-strings and draws you in anyway. This is not to mention the fact that it is frequently highly amusing, and the comedy bears a resemblance to reality that makes it all the more humorous.
There is no trace of the contrived, set-up jokes that mar these kind of films all to frequently: indeed, 'Garden State', though funny, isn't produced like a comedy at all. Some excellent turns in the smaller parts enhance the film, and you leave believing in its ethos and believing in Braff: for a first film, it shows superb promise.