Garden State manages a high wire act for the first hour, where writer/director/star Zach Braff plays the straight man to all the odd things that are going on around him. At any moment it could have fallen apart and become one of those films where everyone in the small town is kooky and colorful and everything is just so precious. If his character’s overmedication has resulted in his passivity, it creates a situation where he can’t even muster a slow burn. So he does something just beneath that to register his bewilderment at the nerve wracking situations surrounding him. And that’s why most of what happens is very funny; no one manages to read his feelings, because he doesn’t even know what they are.
The movie begins as a reverse riff on The Graduate, where someone who has left town and is miserable comes back to where he was trying to run from (for his mother’s funeral). Rather than everyone give him advice on what he should be trying to do with his life, because they haven’t managed much with theirs, they try to co-opt what they view as his “making it,” missing the point that he hasn’t made it at all. He parties with his old friends, and they don’t even attempt to acknowledge how he feels about his mother’s death, or what is his life is like, just how they believe how great it might be (indeed, one of his friends invented a product and sold it to a major company for millions and now holds huge parties every night, but admits to being completely bored). When he meets Natalie Portman the day after the funeral, she is the only person who treats him with any curiosity, though because of his passivity, still does a lot of hilarious projecting based on her own insecurities.
While it seems obvious at first where their relationship is going, Portman’s performance is so refreshing, off-kilter and energetic, that she makes up for the predictability. Like Claire Danes on My So Called Life, she has a way of smiling when she receives an unexpected compliment that just melts any woman-craver in the audience.
But the movie collapses in act III, as the last four scenes consist of Braff making a life changing declaration or realization with the various characters and giving long didactic, unrealistic speeches. Ian Holm is underused as Braff’s dad, I got the feeling some of his scenes were cut out which might have given more depth to their relationship. Still the film is worth seeing, especially for the extremely funny dialogue in the first half, and for Braff and Portman’s unusually natural back and forth. Garden State seems to understand that it’s not always animal attraction that is important, but simply making the other person feel comfortable. That might seem like settling, and in certain situations, it can be. But in this case, establishing a consistent footing in your life when you’re confused on every issue can be reassuring and feel just right.