I get leery when an actor is the lead of a movie he has written. The performance can be too punctuated as if he’s pushing to make a point. I felt that way in some Woody Allen films and Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting.” But hey, I understand how the show business is. It’s rare for an actor to get a dream role. If you’re an actor-slash-writer, then writing that dream role for yourself is one way to make it come true.
That’s what I sensed in “Garden State.” I was watching not only Zach Braff’s dream role but also his dream movie. Braff probably wanted something different from JD, his goofy doctor in the wonderful comedy series “Scrubs.” In the movie, his Andrew Largeman, played with an extensive lack of punctuation, is an emotional zombie. An experienced pill popper. An inexperienced tear shedder.
Andrew, a struggling actor-slash-waiter in West Coast, returns to New Jersey upon hearing the news of his mother’s death. He reunites with his psychiatrist dad (Ian Holm), who seems to have a cold and professional relationship with his son. Andrew bumps into some of his old friends (a gravedigger, a cop, a store employee, and an inventor) who all awkwardly fit in the supposedly more mature period of post college. Also along Andrew’s path is the manifestation of Natalie Portman, who plays the kooky and lovable Samantha. She is the stuff Andrew’s (or for that matter, Braff’s) dreams are made off because she will be the one to wake him up from his dream-like existence.
The movie treads through themes that we’ve already seen and executed better in other movies. See “American Beauty” if you want to watch cinematic awakening from a catatonic lifestyle. See the brilliant “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which also features the pairing of a neurotic woman and withdrawn man, but is written and acted much better than “Garden State.” Though Natalie Portman turns in one of her winning roles in years, she cannot hold a light to Kate Winslet’s wildly incandescent performance.
With that said, “Garden State” is still enjoyable. Its delight comes in little details, especially the wonderful sight gags such as a shirt matching the pattern of bathroom wallpaper, an object in the doctor’s office that’s nailed to the ceiling, and dusted fingerprints on the TV screen. Braff is also good at establishing visual shots that effectively capture the essence of his characters. For example, the opening sequence, where Andrew dreams he is calm aboard a crashing plane, zeroes in on Andrew’s mentality. The film is blessed with a great production design, which is odd to say since this is neither a futuristic nor period nor fantasy film. But there are interesting things to notice on the sets, much like watching a “Harry Potter” film. As for Zach Braff, the actor-writer-director of the movie, I definitely see a potential. “Garden State” is a good start, but maybe he should wake up a little and be brave enough to put reality in his dream movies.