'Garden State' (2004)/Written & Directed by Zach Braff/Grade: C-
Just got around to giving Zach Braff's screenwriting/directorial debut last night, and I have some thoughts. For those who haven't heard of it, the story follows Andrew Largeman (Braff), a quietly depressed and lost young man who reluctantly travels home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral, after having not seen his family and friends in a decade. During his stay, he reconnects with some old comrades, including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), and is eventually brought out of his stupor when he meets the spirited Sam (Natalie Portman), a woman who is everything he's not.
This movie is infamous for forming the character trope known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, which is a female character purposefully depicted as vivacious and 'different', and whose purpose is to give the uninteresting male hero a new appreciation for life.
Even knowing that, I felt gross as I watched Andrew's entire journey and improvement hinge on Sam's presence in his life, without A) any prior effort to improve on his own, and without B) Braff giving Natalie Portman anything to work with in his script, beyond the aforementioned term 'spirited'. The then-future-Oscar-winner can only do so much, admirably well, but her efforts are futile, as she is tasked with portraying a concept, not a character. Sam, and Andrew's entire romantic subplot with her, are the worst parts of the movie.
That being said, I also found the other characters rather forgettable. No one stands out as having a memorable or unique personality, despite the movie clearly banking on its quirkiness. Even accomplished supporting players like Peter Sarsgaard, or the late Ian Holm as Andrew's father, can create something fun or engaging out of these dull-as-dishwater characters.
What I can say in the way of positives, is that Zach Braff directs this film with an amazing amount of confidence. He always knows where he wants the characters to go, even if they don't. He also shows quite a visual flair. Shot by Lawrence Sher (The Hangover, Joker, Road Trip), Garden State has much energy in its camerawork, and knows just which kind of setup and shot size to capture each moment, each place. I was particularly captivated by a scene in the doctor's office, where Sher and Braff brilliantly utilized negative space to make Andrew feel awkward/small and overwhelmed in this environment. Production designer Judy Becker also crowds the places with awards and degrees earned by the doctor Andrew is visiting. Another standout moment was a swooping crane shot at Andrew's mother's funeral at the beginning, starting above the crowd of attendees, and panning down to behind his head, as he stands off to the side.
If nothing else, this movie is a great demo reel for Braff as a director, not so much as a writer. Thankfully, he would later go on to direct better stuff like Going in Style (2017), and most recently A Good Person (2023). The main plusses throughout all his work are his ability to connect with actors and get great performances from them, along with his keen visual eye. But if you're a fan of romcoms, give Garden State a wide berth.