Related Articles: Movies, All

Garden State

Escape from the burbs

Many people living in the city hate the town that they grew up in (or at least say they did). And when they leave for college or move to a big, metropolitan city they realize why and vow never to return. The small town: lacks the diversity a city offers; the events that stretch your mind's realization of what is possible; and the people whose experiences shape a perspective that you never considered. Garden State is about one of those unchallenging small towns. TV sitcom star Zach Braff (Scrubs) wrote and directed the film which takes him back to an unnamed, sleepy community in New Jersey from his acting career in Los Angeles. And like all small towns, the moment he steps foot inside its borders, he begins to run into people that he left in his past.

It's not the most original concept, contrasting the pros and cons of small towns versus the big city. And in movies, the small town inevitably wins, because in real life it almost never does. However, when done well, it can still warm the heart of the most cynical viewers. It's a variation on the underdog theme, and people love to rally behind the little guy. For that reason, its warm reception at Sundance isn't surprising. Miramax also saw its potential, picking up distribution rights for a cool $4.1 million.

I don't know if Braff was raised in one of these innumerable bedroom communities, but he has a good understanding of how they function. Dealing with the daily pace can be an adjustment, and upon arriving it can seem like the residents popped a couple muscle-relaxers with their morning coffee. The half-full people call it quaint. The half-empty people call it boring. But because the lives of people in small towns are uninteresting from the outside, it allows the focus to be shifted to the eccentricities of their characters.

The small-city phenomenon that Garden State capitalizes on is this: As teenagers, you look at the town's people and wonder how they end up living their whole life in this dead end town, working a mindless job that barely pays enough to cover your tab at the local watering hole where you drown your sorrows. But of course, among the people having the discussion, a majority of them go on to be the guy that the next generation points to when they have the identical conversation.

Braff clearly understands this fact, and inhabits his town with a slew of characters going nowhere fast - pyramid-scheme pusher, Medieval Times cast member, gravedigger - that he runs into over the course of the film. But more importantly, he meets lady friend Sam, played by Natalie Portman, who lives a life that is the polar opposite from his. While she imbibes all things in life, whether good or bad, he has turned to medication to keep himself from experiencing any of these extremes.

Their relationship seems genuine because Braff undertakes the difficult task of writing interesting conversations between him and Portman, as opposed to setting the two of them up with a romantic backdrop and the instrumental of a Jewel song playing in the background. He avoids the trap of allowing two attractive people to get together because they are attractive. Sure it happens all the time in everyday life, but it isn't interesting to watch unfold. While their relationship develops quickly in terms of the movie's timetable, it progresses at a very restrained pace in front of our eyes. The chase is always more interesting than the catch anyway.

There really isn't a dull moment and every conversation seems to introduce something fresh and unexpected. It embraces the peculiarities of all its characters and gives us the feeling that they are different than who we encounter in our regular routine. Peter Saarsgard does a fine job playing someone a bit too disgruntled to allow you to feel comfortable around, even as your friend. And Natalie Portman recaptures the charm she showed in Beautiful Girls that looked to be lost forever in that debacle known as Episode 2: The Phantom Menace. Garden State is one of the best romantic comedies to come across the screen in a long time.