Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) receives a message from his estranged father that his mother has died. Wrapped in a cocoon of anti-depressant drugs, a sterile Los Angeles apartment and a thankless job waiting tables at a chic Vietnamese restaurant, “Large” returns to suburban New Jersey for the funeral. Confiding to his icy psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) that he’s been getting headaches, Large is booked an appointment with a neurologist. An actor whose claim to fame was playing a mentally retarded football player on a TV movie, Large reunites with a buddy named Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a funeral park worker who spends his time smoking pot.
Even with street drugs he’s given at a party, Large is unable to relate to the people back home, including a buddy (Armando Riesco) who got rich off his patent for “silent Velcro.” Large remains in his stupor until he meets a patient at the neurologist’s office named Sam (Natalie Portman). With her taste in music (The Shins), messy family and manic affinity for lying, Large emerges from his funk. He opens up to Sam about why he got as far away from his family as soon as he could. Obsessed with tracking down the perfect going away gift for Large, Mark takes the couple on a wild goose chase that ends in an infinite abyss dug into the suburbs.
Zach Braff graduated Northwestern University film school in 1997 and made his way to Los Angeles, where he went out on acting auditions. Cast in the NBC sitcom Scrubs in 2000, Braff quit his day job waiting tables and spent the four months before he was due to start work finishing a script he’d been scribbling since college. “I’ve been to maybe a dozen funerals in my life and I was always struck by how there’d be all the people mourning the death at the gravesite and twenty yards away, there’d be two guys on a tractor checking their watch. That was always really upsetting to me. It also showed how different two people can be as far as where they are in their minds. So that was one of the seeds for the idea of the movie.”
With Scrubs, Braff became a client of the powerful Creative Artists Agency, which circulated his script – Large’s Ark – through the industry. Braff recalled, “Almost everyone had passed on it. They all said, ‘Make it a three-act structure movie.’ If I submitted it to a screenwriting class, I would have failed.” A 28-year-old president of production at Jersey Films – Garden State native Pamela Abdy – read the script and championed it. She introduced Braff to her bosses Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher, whose producing pedigree helped attract Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard and Ian Holm to the cast, with Braff both starring in and making his directorial debut.
Dropping the cryptic title Large’s Ark and renaming the film Garden State, the search for financing came next. Braff recalled, “I had envisioned in my head that being in Scrubs, having Natalie Portman starring and Danny DeVito producing that it would be a cinch. I was like, ‘I’m not asking for that much money. C’mon!’ I couldn’t find anyone that wanted to take a risk. It was a risk. The screenplay is not a traditional three act structure and it’s not a movie a studio would ever generate … People then said, ‘Okay, if you do this to it, if you do that to it.'”
“One thing that freaked them out, for example, was introducing a character that doesn’t come back. I’m like, ‘Well that’s life. I go home for four days. I meet somebody. They’re not going to teach me a lesson by the time I leave.’” With time running out, Gary Gilbert & Dan Halsted of Camelot Pictures agreed to finance a budget of $2.5 million. A 25-day shooting schedule commenced April 2003 in Braff’s hometown of South Orange, New Jersey, with cinematographer Lawrence Sher and production designer Judy Becker – stalwarts of indie film – giving Garden State its ethereal look.
Screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2004, the film was so well received that Fox Searchlight and Miramax put up $5 million to acquire worldwide distribution. Released in July, the reviews were favorable; while Keith Phipps wrote at The Onion A.V. Club, “Garden State coasts on this considerable charm until it hits a brick wall in its final segments,” Roger Ebert added, “This is not a perfect movie; it meanders and ambles and makes puzzling detours. But it’s smart and unconventional, with a good eye for the perfect detail.” Generating enthusiastic word of mouth among many who discovered it, Garden State went on to gross $26 million in only a limited release in the U.S.
Too early to tell whether Garden State will affect the generational impact of The Graduate, Harold and Maude or The Breakfast Club, this is the first comedy/drama in years that warrants a comparison with the classics of disaffected youth. The reason is Braff’s righteously offbeat screenplay which – maybe out of ignorance for how most movies are written – ignores commandments carved into stone by Robert McKee and finds its own voice. In addition to introducing characters with no relevancy whatsoever to the plot, the story develops in loosely connected episodes. The couple likes each other as soon as they meet. Somehow, it all works.
While the chemically imbalanced Large and Sam don’t really seem like they would last 72 hours together, much less happily ever after, Braff evokes the right moods to patch over gaps in logic. Garden State feels truthful. Just as good, it’s hilarious, due to an inspired cast featuring Jean Smart as Mark’s stoner mom, Michael Weston as a miniature cop and Geoffrey Arend as a retail employee who harangues Large with his get rich scheme. And after being lost in so many big movies, the plucky Natalie Portman seems tailored for this type of treehouse production. The much praised autumnal soundtrack – cueing Coldplay, Frou Frou and Nick Drake – avoids sounding trendy and holds up well.
Matt Cale at Ruthless Reviews rants, “Garden State literally made my skin crawl. I hated it as much as I’ve hated anything all year, and only an unexpected Adam Sandler film festival will keep it off my Worst of the Year list … rather than tell a story or develop interesting characters, the filmmaker throws together dozens of scenes that make no sense within the context of the film, largely because they were conceived by a young prick who collected random thoughts in a dog-eared notebook over several years in the hope that one day his bloated smattering of paper would find a buyer.”
“Garden State is far from perfect, but the things that do work exceed any excesses in Braff’s tendency to overreach in trying to inject heavy-handed pathos into his silly comedy. A little less angst would go a long way, but for viewers who tend to attribute meaning though mood over substance, you will probably come away thinking this to be a deeper experience than is warranted. Still, it is original and perversely clever at times, and in the world of romantic comedies, if you can call this one, that alone puts it head and shoulders above almost all of them,” writes Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews.
Mike Long at Jackass Critics writes, “The real standout in the film is Sarsgaard, who seems to get better with every role. He plays a character who is both likable and despicable at the same time, and thus, the audience hangs on his every move as we attempt to decide how we feel about him. Garden State is the best Kevin Smith movie that I’ve seen since Chasing Amy. However, Smith had nothing at all to do with this film and Garden State only proves the difficulty in making a quirky film which is both moving and funny.”