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2004, dir. Zach Braff
109 min. Rated R
Starring: Zach Braff, Queen Amidala, Bilbo Baggins, a guy with too many vowels in his last name.

Review by Noel Wood

GARDEN STATE is one of those debut films that gets all the right press. Zach Braff's little indie dramedy has been getting all of the appropriate buzz at film festivals and in all the independent film rags. Critics are loving it, and the anticipation for this little film that could to be released in cities other than New York and Los Angeles was tearing away at fans of independent film across the country.

Maybe I went in to GARDEN STATE expecting too much, because I was disappointed. There's something to say for the phenomenon of hype, and certainly worked in the negative here. It's not always this way, though. I loved LOST IN TRANSLATION, despite the amount of hype that it carried. In fact, this film seems like it was being groomed as this year's LOST IN TRANSLATION, at least with the way the ads are pimping it out.

It won't be a popular opinion, but I just wasn't moved by GARDEN STATE. Maybe it was because I was expecting so much more, but on the other hand, maybe it's because it just wasn't as good a movie as some people might have you believe. Now, don't get me wrong -- I didn't dislike the film; I just don't see it becoming a fixture in my DVD library in the future or anything.

Not a whole lot happens in GARDEN STATE. Struggling Hollywood actor guy finds out his mother died, goes back home for the funeral, parties with his loser friends, meets a girl, has an epiphany, the end. It's not much of a plot, but that's never been much of a problem for this style of film. The problem is that along the way, the movie loses its focus too many times and fails to remain engaging.

Braff plays Andrew Largeman, called "Large" by his friends back home. He hasn't seen these people in nine years, but they're all thrilled to see him. It's that whole starfucker mentality thing, I guess, because they try to offer him advice on his Hollywood career. He runs into a couple of old buddies at his mother's funeral, and then proceeds to get messed up with the lot of 'em at his friend Mark's house. He has a tumultuos relationship with his psychiatrist father (played by the criminally underused Ian Holm) and sees a neurologist who gives him a second opinion. While in the waiting room, he meets a girl named Sam who seems to annoy him more than intrigue him at first.

Natalie Portman plays Sam like she's sixteen years old. This was a bit of an annoyance, because she was clearly playing someone much older than that; and the childish quality made her seem more irritating than enchanting. But Large finds himself hanging out with her in most of his free time, as they compare their stories of how fucked up their lives are. Although he's only in town for a few days, Large begins to fall for her as the dialogue reveals a bit more of his dark secrets of life.

The last half hour or so take a drawn-out, seemingly pointless at first, turn involving Sam, Large, and Mark going on a journey of sorts. By the time the mission is revealed, it greatly disappoints. Finally, Large has to make the whole "Should I Stay or Should I Go" decision like Mick Jones and figure out whether or not he should give up his life in Hollywood for Padme back home. Predictabile Holywood Ending ensues.

A lot of this film is very funny, even though it's not really a straightforward comedy. Some of the film's elements seem like they are there just to be ridiculous. But unfortunately, that's the best part about it. I know I'll be lambasted by my peers in the fake-movie-reviewer realm, but I didn't really buy the love story. I didn't really care for the characters at all, in fact. And the whole life experience thing that was going on just seemed a bit underwhelming. It's like the movie was trying to be bigger than it really was by keeping everything small, but wound up just kind of stalling out by the halfway mark.

Like I said, I didn't dislike it. For the most part, I sat entertained and kept hoping for better things to happen the whole time. Unfortunately, they never really did. It was kind of like stepping into an exotic car, cranking the engine, and leaving it in park. You might give it a little gas and feel it vibrate, but you never actually drive it. It purrs nicely the whole time, but it just never goes anywhere.

The opening scene of the film takes place on a plane that's on its way down for an imminent crash. It seems like it's going to be a bit of foreshadowing as the ending creeps up on you and ponders along, but winds up just being an oddly placed dream sequence when it's all said and done. I'm really wondering if this was all the result of test audiences or if it was the original intent, but either way, it reveals what would have maybe been a step toward making it a much different movie.


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