Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #88
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: January 16, 2004 (Sundance) July 28, 2004
Sub-Genre: Cult Film
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $35,825,316
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: Zach Braff
Producers: Gary Gilbert, Pam Abdy, Richard Klubeck
Screenplay: Zach Braff
Score: Alexi Murdoch, Chad Fischer
Soundtrack: Available From Epic/Sony Music Soundtrax (Compilation Produced by Zach Braff)
Cinematography: Lawrence Sher
Editing: Myron I Kerstein
Studio: Camelot Pictures, Jersey Films, Double Feature Films
Distributors: Fox Searchlight Pictures (USA), Buena Vista International (International)
Stars: Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Saarsgard, Ian Holm, Armando Riesco, Jean Smart, Jim Parsons, Ron Liebman, Ann Dowd, Ato Essandoh, Jackie Hoffman, Michael Weston, Alex Burns, Geoffrey Arend, Method Man, Denis O’Hare, Debbon Ayer and Magoo as the Masturbating Dog
Suggested Audio Valium:
Frou Frou Let Go
Film is a powerful media. It has the power to induce uncontrollable laughter, teeming rage, profound discomfort and world shattering heartbreak. Depending on your state of mind and how much you are willing to commit emotionally, it can give to you riches unbounded, so long as you open yourself to it. Some folk only wish for escapism and that it fine also, but for those able to use it as a learning tool, it can alter your whole outlook if done properly. I hand myself over to its safekeeping every time I sit and press Play, and search for a positive message within its narrative. I cherry pick basically; my opinions and beliefs have long since been formed but should its teachings be relevant to me then I will always take notice.
Garden State changed my life; at the start of proceedings I had built a fortress around myself emotionally, having been through the joys of divorce and losing my way like a wayward sheep straying far from the flock. I was desperately lost; my normally sunny disposition had been replaced with a cynical viewpoint and refusal to allow myself to feel anything. By the wonderful end credits I had been reduced to a blubbering mess of emotion, the floodgates had opened and I had received confirmation that there is in fact beauty in the breakdown.
Now I am not suggesting the impact will be identical to anyone fortunate enough to spend 102 minutes with Largeman and friends but, for a guy late into his twenty somethings and desperately off course, it had the desired effect. Zach Braff will be familiar to most of you as JD from the long-running Scrubs. As well as being gifted with a witty script and an animated group of protagonists, ringmaster Braff also gives his Springer-esque final thought, normally a moral nugget of infinite wisdom for you to carry on with you, should you wish.
This is his Annie Hall, with Woody Allen as an obvious influence; he gives himself completely artistically to making sure his story is told the way he wants. He writes, directs, stars and even compiles his own personal mix-tape for this labour of love, the fruit of his creative loins. There is clearly a lot of him in Andrew Largeman, there’s too much insight to suggest otherwise. He is at a stage of bewilderment and is questioning his soulless reality and through the course of the film embarks on a journey of self discovery and almost spiritual enlightenment, as the meds which have robbed him of his childhood and the ability to feel, begin to wear off.
The story focuses on his return to his hometown, for his mother’s funeral. The striking introduction is clinical; white is primarily used to express the blank canvas that is his state of mind. He feels numb, cold and on auto pilot, living a life he would feel isn’t his own, it only he could feel. Like the Tin Man from Oz he hasn’t given in and desperate to find his centre he sets off, accompanied by Coldplay’s perfectly placed Don’t Worry. As he stands dazed in the cemetery, he catches sight of some old buddies. For the remainder of the first act he sleepwalks through drug-laden social gatherings, smiling awkwardly and politely but there’s pain behind his eyes.
Once more, as is the case unswervingly throughout, the audio compliments his inner turmoil exquisitely without Largeman opening up. Props for his willingness, he also commands our empathy instantaneously with his gentle demeanor. His tale opens gradually like a flower in the throes of bloom; once we are presented with his stern and misguided and above all equally lost father new light is shed on his wayward mental state. A subsequent visit to his GP adds credence to his curiosities, a lifetime on various numbing agents masquerading as medication has been responsible for his lack of feeling.
Something truly unexpected happens in the surgery waiting room and this is where the film shifts into an entirely different direction. He makes the acquaintance of Sam, a young lady with an innocent aura about her and a sweet disposition. Momentarily they touch souls, through the introduction of The Shins and without any words spoken in that moment. It is a scene of graceful simplicity but also of great emotional resonance, depicted by the awkwardness of that musical enlightenment and instant attraction clear in both of their facial expressions.
Natalie Portman has since gone on to bag herself a Best Female Actor Oscar for her sublime turn in Black Swan and of course should have been familiar to anybody blessed enough with having seen Leon: the Professional. But it will forever be her inhabitancy of Sam which touches me personally. For some time afterwards I was infatuated with her character, before the realization set in that it wasn’t in fact Sam who I was deeply in love with but the awareness that someone like her can exist. I gleaned hope from her existence and the fact that Portman brings so much to the role only serves to cement this affection. Their interactions throughout the remaining two acts confirm our hopes and, while down to both leads (and I see a lot of myself in Largeman) it is her who shines brightest.
There is another beacon of brilliant light in the unlikely guise of stoner buddy Mark (a marvelously understated turn by Peter Saarsgard). His eyes suggest that he understands Largeman better than most and they share an almost telepathic relationship. Saarsgard’s ability to fully comprehend his character’s nuances and intricacies enables him to steal many of the scenes he figures in.
There are a number of quirky turns, each highlighting Largeman’s disconnection from many of those who surround him. In particular the excruciating exchanges between Largeman and numerous acquaintances from his past showcase this superbly. As our love story begins to blossom so too does his faith, the meds now replaced with tangible feelings, the likes of which have been muted for his entire adult life. This culminates in a pivotal moment in the infinite abyss where he finds his voice spectacularly alongside his new soul mate. He begins to bare his soul to this grateful recipient and this in turn gives him rare clarity.
This new-found lucidity of mind enables Largeman to gain closure on the strained relations with his estranged father. In the moving scene, he becomes the responsible adult and sets the wheels in motion for a new understanding between them. The closing scene does absolutely everything correctly and even manages to make its own luck with an inexplicably well-timed happy accident. Portman is utterly transcendent in this scene, needing only one take to convey Sam’s crushed response to her love’s imminent departure. And thankfully Braff sidesteps any enticement to give a pragmatic outcome, thus appealing to the true romantic in us all. We are willing them on and by this point there is only one adequate conclusion. He gets it spot on and our story comes to the most gratifying of closes, escorted by the spellbinding Let Go by Frou Frou.
Garden State has amassed a dedicated fan base over the years, so much so that he now plans to give his devoted followers a sequel. I have mixed feelings about this proposal. On one hand, I shall await it like a ravenous vulture but on the other it will be unfeasible for it to ever have the emotional poignancy that he achieved with this splendid film. For me it was the right film at the precise time in my existence when I needed it most. In the words of Largeman and in the direction of Braff I say only this – “you changed my life”.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
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