Garden State's quirky realism proves true

Garden State, the directorial debut of NBC?s Scrubs star Zach Braff, opens with a vague and abrupt scene aboard a passenger jet about to crash. As the airliner descends haphazardly, as Diet Coke flies through the air and people silently scream, the film?s protagonist, Andrew Largeman (played by Braff, who also wrote the film) sits numbly in his seat and stares straight ahead. This is followed by a surreal few seconds in which Large (as he is known to his friends) sees his bedroom telephone mounted next to the oxygen mask and then wakes up in his sterile white bed in Los Angeles, where his father is leaving a message stating that his mother has died.

The plane crash, we realize, is not an actual occurrence but a metaphor for Large?s life. A television actor, he has been on lithium prescriptions of one sort or another since he was a child and consequently drifts through his days in a stupor. As he makes his way back to his home state of New Jersey for the funeral, he decides to leave his medication behind, and the story proceeds quietly from there.

The crash scene, however, should not be forgotten. Even as Large and the audience wind their way through the leafy, cloudy streets of New Jersey?s suburbs, the journey is still punctuated with images that are just as disturbing as that initial one, and much more realistic. Without them, Garden State would be a very enjoyable, low-key story of a young man?s search for self. With them, however, the film becomes not only more realistic, but far more interesting.

Large?s first stop is his mother?s funeral, where he is coolly greeted by his distant father, played by Sir Ian Holm. He takes far more interest in his reunion with high school buddy Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a gravedigger and sometime criminal, who drags him to a party right after the burial. Braff, who wrote the script based on experiences from his childhood in the Garden State, clearly knows the territory of bored young people in suburban surroundings. The sequence in which he and friends pop pills in a basement, presumably to break the ice with a group of girls, is totally absurd and yet believable.

Hope comes in the form of Sam, here played with sly energy by Natalie Portman. An irrepressible pathological liar and epileptic (thankfully, Sam?s handicap is never played for sympathy, nor does it serve as some kind of saccharine plot device), she is exactly the breath of fresh air that Large needs. The two of them immediately start to confide in one another as Large attempts to enjoy the rest of his time with his friends and navigate through feelings he?s kept suppressed for over a decade.

The movie is written in a fairly unstructured style, following the meandering course of a homecoming weekend, and yet it rarely drags. Although it is never made clear which New Jersey town Large lives in (something that must be driving natives crazy), it?s a place that is both familiar and delightfully surprising. Braff has managed to capture the essence of the Garden State perfectly, as a place where working-class neighborhoods can coexist in the same zip code with mansions that evoke castles. The atmospheres are richly and sharply rendered, from the sterile beige walls of the Largemans? McMansion to the cheery, messy warmth of Sam?s living room.

The characters all live up to their surroundings too, filling them to the top with personality. Although not handsome in a classic movie star sort of way, Braff?s earnestness and solidity make him a very attractive hero. Portman manages to be constantly bubbly without grating on the audience?s nerves, and the supporting characters fill out their roles nicely, particularly Holm as Braff?s emotionally constipated psychiatrist of a father.

The one who really stands out, however, is Peter Sarsgaard as Large?s friend Mark. With his greasy good looks, he manages to embody everything that is seedy and exciting and wonderful about the Garden State. ?I?m okay with being unimpressive,? he explains. ?I sleep better.? He?s the kind of guy who has no bones about still living with his mother but who is secretly investing in Desert Storm trading cards, which one day he hopes to sell for a profit. He sells jewelry collects off of corpses and deals in tanks of nitrous but also goes out of his way for a friend; he inhabits a world that still shouts ?mischievous teenager,? complete with mirrors above his bed. It is Mark?s constant undercurrent of danger that often keeps the film from slipping into sentimentality.

Garden State is not without its weaknesses. Despite the loose plotting, there are some moments that are still too far off track to be relevant, including one involving, of all people, Method Man. There is a graphic sex scene that is totally and utterly gratuitous, and a few characters sort of get lost in the haze. The ending, while sweet, seems rushed and clumsy. It is as if Braff suddenly decided he had to neatly wrap up his interconnected vignettes and panicked. Although some may like it, they may also wonder where along the line the film morphed into a romantic comedy. Not that it wouldn?t do well as such.

But looking back at that plane crash, this is a film trying to be a whole lot more ? and almost succeeding.