You know, for about the first half an hour or so I didn’t think I was going to like Garden State. Natalie Portman was doing such a great job of playing Sam, who was being a terribly annoying character. No, thought I, please no, please do not try to make me cheer for a relationship between this person and the affable Zach Braff, whom I am becoming fond of both for his portrayal of this Andrew Largeman and for his deft touch with suburban absurdism. I was saddened, because she was grating on me something fierce. I have little room in my heart for anyone who believes being cute excuses being obnoxious.
On the other hand, Natalie Portman can act. And Zach Braff can act. And a little while further on, as Andrew slowly came out of his tranquilizer-induced haze, and as Sam slowly became comfortable with him and stopped poking at him, I wound up cheering. I think I blame the overhead shot of the swimming pool, if I had to pick an exact moment, because she didn’t have to come back to the shallow end but she did anyhow. The tap dancing was gravy.
OK: it’s a first film, and that shows. Three big emotive speeches at the end, two of them to the same person? That’s a screenwriter who didn’t know how to finish his movie. Howling in the rain as a transformative moment? Come on. But I forgive; of course I do. The rest of the movie is so eloquently deft. Braff uses quirky to his advantage, and never slips into quirk for quirk’s sake. Early on, he finds a gas pump nozzle sticking out of his car. He’s driven off without removing it, which is quirky. But it tells a story about his mental state, which propels the story onward. Good stuff.
Didn’t hurt that the supporting cast is strong. Peter Sarsgaard is a treasure. With this performance plus his turn in Kinsey, he’s a shoo-in for the Oscar for Best Body of Work as a Supporting Actor In A Single Year. Ian Holm is Ian Holm. I wouldn’t say that his father/son moment measures up to Liam Neeson and John Lithgow, speaking of Kinsey, but that’s an awfully tough standard. Holm does an awful lot in Garden State with a few lines and a quiet mastery of expression.
I wondered a bit about Natalie Portman’s costuming and some of the set design. She’s young-looking anyway, and to have someone who looks that young bringing a guy who’s in his mid-twenties home to the house where she’s still living with her family — I found it distracted a little, particularly since Andrew is returning in so many ways to his high school years by returning home. He’s seeing the same people, and none of them have moved on from what they were. They’re still hanging out with high school girls. It’s not until later that we know for more or less sure that Sam’s not in an inappropriate age bracket. Perhaps that was intentional, but it jarred me.
So a gem with a few flaws. It won’t make my top ten for the year, but it’ll stick with me for a while.