I have a nostalgic fondness for Scrubs, the long-running dramedy show where Zach Braff became a household name. The summer before my freshman year of high school, the first five seasons of Scrubs went into regular rotation on Comedy Central and I fell absolutely in love. The show’s surreal aesthetic, quirky humor mixed with compelling drama, and uniformly excellent cast–led by Braff–hooked me and although I haven’t seen an episode in a long time, I watch it if I ever see it.
Last night, after being repeatedly told to see it, I sat down with a friend and watched Garden State, Braff’s much-lauded labor of love. Released in 2004, Braff wrote the film, directed it, personally supervised the soundtrack (for which he won a Grammy Award) and starred in it. His dedication paid off because I enjoyed the film enormously, both for its departure from indie-movie cliche and for Braff’s unique stylistic choices.
The plot stars Braff as struggling actor Andrew Largman, 27 years old, heavily medicated for his entire adult life and completely emotionally closed off
from the world. He flies from L.A to his home state of New Jersey to attend his estranged mother’s funeral and, while awkwardly interacting with his psychiatrist dad (Ian Holm) and reconnecting with long-ago friends like pot-smoking gravedigger Mark (Peter Sarrsgard), he winds up befriending eccentric Sam (Natalie Portman) in a doctors office and the events of the ensuing week will change his life.
This movie has a cult following and its not hard to see why. Braff has a unique design sense in this film, using set design and color to tell us the mindset of a character. He also uses costuming to the same ends and his camera observes but doesn’t announce, letting the audience decide the import of what they’re seeing.
Script-wise, Braff uses dialogue to great effect and structures the conversations very naturally and low-key, even the more comical bits. We’re never told exactly what anyone’s thinking, for the most part, but we infer it through what they say.
But the biggest strength Braff brings behind the camera is, without a doubt, the music. And that’s no surprise, is it? I mean, part of what made Scrubs so great was its well-placed and well-timed soundtrack; Braff was responsible for that, at least partially (it was he who suggested the song that wound up becoming the theme). According to the film’s Wikipedia entry, Braff personally picked each and every song, choosing songs that expressed his mindset at the time he was writing the screenplay. The result is a fantastic collection of music that helps us perfectly understand these characters and the moments they experience; in short, it’s every bit of what popular music in films should be: helping us underscore what we’re seeing, not just shoved in due to promotion. My favorites of the soundtrack (which, for the record, is available on iTunes, Spotify, what have you)? Toss-up between Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York,” which figures heavily in the film’s climax and The Shin’s “New Slang,” which figures into Sam and Andrew’s first meeting (incidentally, this movie helped The Shins break out in popularity).
Finally, there’s the acting. Braff makes some very interesting choices as Andrew, and it’s interesting to see him be so closed-off after watching him be all over the place and wacky on Scrubs. Holm is a quiet presence as Andrew’s dad, who acts one way but really feels another. Saarsgard takes Mark from a lazy stoner to something different altogether by the end. And he gets a chance to bounce off of Jim “Sheldon Cooper” Parsons in a really funny scene that proves that Parsons can actually act when not being an utter jerk on The Big Bang Theory.
But the real stand-out is Portman. Now I know the case can be made that she buys into the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and while I understand it, I don’t necessarily think that’s true. Yeah, Sam is quirky and tries to make Andrew less of a sad-sack, but A. We find out there’s real, deep pain underneath all that and B. If you met a guy as numbed as Andrew, wouldn’t you want to cheer him up a little?
Bottom line: this movie is great and well worth your time. It may feel like you’ve seen bits of this before, but I guarantee you’ve never seen them done in such a unique, almost subversive and ambiguous way. Recommended.