Zach Braff to me has always been one of the more interesting actors to watch. From his breakout role in Scrubs, to some of the fun antics he does in real life; Braff has always been someone with a unique personality. He is a quirky guy, but also an affable and likable one as well. He has been able to take his personality and turn that into quite the career, with a fair share of success as an actor in film, television, and in the theater. Personally, I’ve always been a big fan of his work, but he has been under fire of recent.
Ever since his Kickstarter campaign for his second directorial feature Wish I Was Here, many called out Braff for using crowd sourced funding, instead of using most of his own money in the film. To me, that argument was kind of silly, since he for the most part used his own money, and provided his supporters with more than just being involved in the creation of this project. With Wish I Was Here coming out soon, it felt like a good time to discuss Braff’s first directorial effort Garden State, which is one of my personal favorite films of all time.
Garden State follows Andrew Largeman, an actor in his mid-20’s who feels lost in the world of Hollywood. He returns back home to attend his mother’s funeral, and also to try and find himself.
When mentioning Garden State, its hard not to mention the soundtrack for this film. Zach Braff actually won a Grammy for his work here, and it’s certainly well deserved. This is certainly my kind of soundtrack, with The Shins, Simon and Garfunkel, Coldplay, and the oh so underrated Nick Drake. By far, this is my personal favorite soundtrack of all time, and certainly one that I listen to frequently.
Not only is this soundtrack good, but it fits perfectly into the film. Braff as a director knows the perfect moment to hit an audience with one of these songs, and they really enhance some of the scenes in the film. One scene in particular involving Zero 7’s “In the Waiting Line”, entrances its audience with a sort of mesmerizing, dream like quality. That is just one example, almost all of the music enhances their respectful scenes in their own unique way.
As far as performances go, everyone seems to be on their top game here. Zach Braff easily gives the best performance he has in a film, largely because he is given a much bigger opportunity here. Braff as Andrew Largeman perfectly executes this sort of lost and numb person, who slowly grows into his own man throughout the film. He has always been known more as comedic actor, but he handles the heavy dramatic scenes with real gravitas and poise.
Perhaps one of the most constant complaints surrounding the film is Natalie Portman and her performance. Many coin her as a manic pixie dream girl, or a quirky female character whose sole purpose is to inspire the protagonist to get himself together. That cliche certainly exists, but is certainly not present in Portman’s performance. There is a real fragility and depth to Portman’s character, which establishes her as a person and not a plot device. Her performance has a perfect balance between that fragility along with the quirk, which makes it obvious how she would fit in with Andrew.
Garden State also surrounds its leads with a fantastic supporting cast. Peter Sarsgaard’s best performance to this day is still in this film, as he does a great job playing as a contrast to Andrew with his character. The character at its core is the cliche’d screw-up, but Sarsgaard gives his character Mark depth to really make an impact on the audience. Ian Holm is only in a few scenes, but is able to not only leave his mark, but show many different emotions and depth in his very few moments.
As a director, Braff especially shines here, by really making this film his own. Braff tackles this coming of age story with an inventive visual style, and really defines his own style and voice here. For one person to achieve such in their directorial debut is incredibly rare and just a true symbol of Braff’s eye for visuals and talent behind the chair. Along with cinematographer Lawrence Sher, the pair craft a really beautiful looking film.
Since this is Braff’s passion project he is the sole writer of the film, and this is where Braff really knocks it out of the park. As a scribe, he really nails that sort of quirky aspect in the dialogue and storytelling, without it ever being insincere and overbearing. Like a folk signer, Braff very much writes with soul, as it’s apparent he is inspired by some of his own struggles at points in his life. The central themes of being lost at a point in life and taking hold of the moment are told in a very genuine way, while keeping these ideas fresh enough to not feel cliche.
Then there is the story structure for this film, which is a balancing act of epic proportions. Garden State really takes a meandering approach to its storytelling, which usually does not work out for the best. Here, Braff balances this together perfectly, with the film going from wacky characters to serious moments with a certain naturalistic flow. At the same time, there are a lot of random interactions and out of the box moments; but these all play well with the story while displaying the film’s themes.
Still, my favorite part has to be the ending of the film. Not only is it just so well put together; from the use of Frou Frou’s “Let Go” and having defined each of the supporting characters in a clever montage, but there is just so much depth present. As Andrew and Sam embrace, making the decision to stay together despite the odds, it’s hard not to get a sense of happiness, although, there is a real sense of melancholy under the surface. As Largerman utters “what do we do?”, and the film cuts to credits, it often leaves me with a feeling that I have not felt since The Graduate. Sure, both of these characters are finally together, but both have severe problems and it’s highly uncertain if their connection will keep them together. The two-sided nature of the ending makes it one of the more interesting endings in a long time.
End of SPOILERS
A cult classic in its own right, Garden State is a quirky, insightful, and impactful flick. Zach Braff really displays here a great eye as a director, while reinventing the tropes of several indie films. Let’s hope he brings more of the same with Wish I Was Here.
Take a Drink: every time a character does.
Do a Shot: for each crazy character introduced.
Take a Drink: when a familiar tune is played.
Do a Shot: during the drug scene, you might need it!