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"Garden State" Review

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Title: Garden State

Starring: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm, Peter Sarsgaard, Geoffrey Arend

Written by: Zach Braff

Directed by: Zach Braff

Rating: R for language, drug use and a scene of sexuality.


Review by Stephen Silver

Deftly mixing comedy and drama, and humor and poignancy alike, Zach Braff's excellent debut film "Garden State" is bound the crack the single-guy DVD-collection pantheon. A tribute to the titular state of New Jersey, "Garden State" may be the best comedy ever written and directed by an under-30 sitcom actor.
 
That actor is Zach Braff, star of the NBC sitcom "Scrubs," who wrote and directed the film and saw it become the hit of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. But unlike so many of the "Sundance faves" of years past, "Garden State" more than lives up to its advance billing, due to a great script, true characters, and impressive performances all around.

One of the best things about the film is that Zach Braff's New Jersey is a unique place previously unseen in moviedom- far from the separate, mythologized Garden States of Kevin Smith, Todd Solondz, "The Sopranos," and (most of all) Bruce Springsteen.

Braff stars as Andrew Largemann, a sometime actor living in Los Angeles who returns to his New Jersey hometown following the death of his mother. Virtually catatonic since childhood due to excessive use of anti-depressants, Andrew roams through life in a daze- until he returns home, junks the drugs, reunites with some high school pals (led by Peter Skarsgard), tries to reconcile with his father (Ian Holm) and meets a Jersey girl (Natalie Portman).

Portman is the film's revelation; having created an original and engaging character, this is easily her best performance as an adult. For those of us who've spent the last few years watching her interact with Anakin Skywaker and Jar Jar Binks in front of a blue screen, Portman was quite an actress back when she was a teenager, in movies like "The Professional" and "Beautiful Girls." Now, the Natalie we remember has finally grown into the actress we should've seen coming all along.

Braff is good as well, whether in his daze-like state at the beginning, or his more "Scrubs"-like incarnation at the end. Indeed, some may object to the film's flippant dismissal of anti-depressant drug use, but it's a small enough part of the film that it doesn't distract from overall enjoyment.

That's because "Garden State" is chock-full of deft touches- from Wes Anderson-style mini-moments to I've-been-there party sequences to Jewish- and New Jersey-based in-jokes. And the music is top-notch throughout, prominently featuring the Shins and other alt-rock bands, but also tossing in the perfect use of a Simon & Garfunkel song that isn't just another cheap "Graduate" rip-off.

From "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" to "Spider-man 2" to now "Garden State," all of this year's best American films have been about depressed, alienated males finding salvation through females. Not exactly a brand-new trend, of course, but "Garden State" gives it a new, Jersey-fresh spin.

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