The road from small screen stardom to genuine movie success is a rocky one – just ask the cast of Friends. Zach Braff, who plays hapless trainee doctor JD in the US comedy series Scrubs, is in a fortunate position however, in that his show, while popular, has not ingrained itself on the public consciousness as Friends did, thus enabling him to escape from his TV character (something that Matthew Perry must long for).
Another wise move of Braff’s is to avoid the formulaic Hollywood comedy that is so often churned out and given to TV stars looking for a vehicle of their own. As writer, director and star of Garden State, Braff is the one in control – this is his vision all the way. Quirky, funny and ever so touching, it’s difficult to believe that this is his first feature film.
Braff plays Andrew ‘Large’ Largeman, a struggling Hollywood actor who returns to his home of New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. A long dependency on anti-depressant drugs has left him numb and emotionally distant, so much so that he finds he can’t even grieve for his mother. After catching up with his rather sad group of oddball mates, he becomes friends with Sam (played by the luminous Natalie Portman).
Sam is the complete opposite of Large – effervescent, tactile, and adorably endearing. Yet Sam has her demons too and the film explores how the two characters help each other to come to terms with their own issues. To be honest, plotwise, that’s all there is to it – but you won’t see a more honest, unusual and romantic film all year.
With this film, Zach Braff marks his card as a major young talent in Hollywood. Firstly, he plays the part of Large perfectly. He portrays the aloofness and distance that Large suffers from beautifully and then gradually shows a man letting down his defences as he falls in love with Sam. His script too is beautifully written, with all the characters being utterly believable, and his direction is astonishingly confident for a debut filmmaker, throwing in techniques such as sweeping crane shots that a veteran director would be proud of.
Of the rest of the cast, Portman is an obvious standout. Her early turns in Leon and Beautiful Girls seem a distant memory now and the Star Wars franchise and seemingly endless stream of weepies such as Anywhere But Here means that we haven’t seen much sign of her acting talent recently. Here though, she gives a perfectly judged performance, being funny, vulnerable, and eccentric. By the end of the film, you’ll be as much in love with her as much as Large is.
Braff decorates his film with some lovely touches: a shirt which shares the same design as his home’s wallpaper, Sam’s pet cemetery, a character who collects Gulf War trading cards and even a masturbating dog. But he balances this with more serious touches, such as the tragic story of his involvement in his paraplegic mother’s accident, and his painful relationship with his father (another wonderful performance from Ian Holm, who is criminally underused here).
If you’re bored of the usual mush that Hollywood churns out then this is compulsory viewing. Featuring a hip soundtrack (including Coldplay, The Shins and Nick Drake), and lit up by some realistic chemistry between the director and his leading lady, this is a lesson to all major studios about how a romantic comedy should really be made and one that will stay with you long after you’ve left the cinema.