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Garden State is an angst-y twentysomething movie. It has lots of subtle humor and some not-so-subtle visual gags. But what redeems it is an earnest story of a bland guy in search of emotion.

I Play One On TV

Andrew finds his voice
Andrew finds his voice

Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff, of Scrubs fame) comes back home for his mother’s funeral. He’s been in L.A. trying to make it as an actor, although his only recurring work is as a waiter in a Vietnamese L.A. restaurant. He did land one role seen by viewers back home; he played a retarded quarterback on TV.

In a hospital waiting room, a girl who recognizes him asks “Are you really retarded?”

“No.”

“Oh! Good job!”

As potentially embarrassing as this could be, the girl turns out to be The Girl, Sam, played by Natalie Portman.

With Friends Like These

The other friends he checks in on are, naturally, still in town. One has become rich enough to retire by inventing silent Velcro. The rest are just getting by. The friend with the unstable personality has inevitably become a local cop. Tim (Jim Parsons) works as a medieval knight (armor and all) at a theme dinner theater. His girlfriend is a much older woman, the mother of another friend, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), which fuel Mark’s resentment toward the world. Mark digs graves for a living, and “earns” extra money by stealing jewelry from the dead and returning merchandise never purchased from the local hardware store.

The film’s tone — deadpan, melancholy, and slightly absurd — is the same as Donnie Darko’s, Secretary’s, Subrubia’s, and Igby Goes Down’s. In this case the tone is justified by Andrew’s personality. He has been on mood stabilizers since childhood. He has lost all feelings (not feeling), as his dream that opens the movie shows — in a plane going down, with everyone panicking, he calmly adjusts the blower to cool his face. With his mother’s death, Andrew wants to regain that emotional response. He couldn’t even cry at funeral; even when he tried to think of sad movies.

Sam becomes his friend, and possibly more, although she has her own pathology; she tells frequent, casual lies to make life more interesting. Judging from the dialogue, she might have a hint of ADD, too. Sam lives alone with her mom, two big dobermans (“we don’t have time to train them”), and a hamster named Peanut Butter — whose mate, Jelly, has just died. — who lives in the world’s biggest Habitrail system.

Horny-Dog Jokes

There is a lot of quirky humor in Garden State. The trouble is that we’ve seen many of these wry jokes before. The tone is established in the first shot, and I immediately think “oh, one of those movies.” And when the stranger’s dog starts humping Andrew’s leg, it’s such a cheap laugh you think Garden State can’t possibly measure up to Donnie Darko. And it probably doesn’t, but it does manage to rise above horny dog jokes.

What saves Garden State is not its tone, nor its gags, nor even Sir Ian Holm, who is badly underused; instead, it is the core story of Andrew’s search for emotion. The supporting cast, the absurdist gags, and the hyperactive girlfriend are all important pieces, but they only work in support of Andrew’s story. Braff’s writing and direction may be derivative or problematic, but his performance is convincing, and that’s what matters.

Conclusions

At the end of the film there are two resolutions, and neither works very well. The argument with his father (who is also the psychiatrist who first prescribed Andew lithium) is predictable and anticlimactic. And the conclusion with Sam is more “Hollywood” than “Indie”; it almost feels like a sellout. The only ending that really works is Andrew’s internal resolution, which happens before the end of the film, in a moment captured by the film’s poster.

Garden State isn’t as good as its peers like Donnie Darko, Subrubia, or Igby Goes Down. But if you liked those movies, you might like this one as well.