Andrew Largeman’s head seems to float in the air. Largeman (director/writer Zach Braff) has been given a shirt made from the fabric left over when his mother covered the walls, so when he wears it, his body blends in with the background.
Largeman is home in New Jersey, the “Garden State,” for his mother’s funeral and even when he is not wearing the wall-blending shirt, he seems to be floating, numb, through life. The reasons are chemical as well as psycholgical. His psychiatrist father has prescribed powerful psychotropic medication for him since he was a child. Largeman’s medicine cabinet in Los Angeles has rows of little bottles. But he leaves them behind when he goes home. He has not really felt anything in a long time, and this may be the time to begin to try.
Largeman is trying to make it as an actor in Los Angeles. He had a prominent role as a developmentally disabled quarterback but is still supporting himself as a waiter in a snooty Asian restaurant. Back in New Jersey, he catches up with high school friends including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who is, perhaps in a nod to Hamlet, a gravedigger, along with a cop, and the investor of “noiseless Velcro,” who has tons of money but is just as lost as the others.
Waiting to see a doctor about his headaches, Largeman meets Sam, played by Natalie Portman, who manages to give the typical “quirky romantic interest who shows up to give the lead a reason to want and hope for more out of life” role a genuine, effervescent, and endearing — well, quirkiness.
Going home again helps Largeman understand who he is and who he wants to be. What is just as enriching is seeing how this movie is helping writer/director/star Braff learn who he is and wants to be. While there are some clumsy detours, particularly a meaningless visit to a peeping-Tom hotel employee, the movie is filled with outstanding performances and moments of great authenticity, sensitivity, and heart. A hungover breakfast with Mark, his mother (Jean Smart from television’s “Designing Women”), and a young man wearing a suit of armor (he works in a medieval re-enactment attraction) is a small masterpiece of acting. And a scene near the end in an ark-like structure at the bottom of a canyon is deliriously but matter-of-factly audacious. He is willing to hold back and not resolve every issue or tell us everything about his characters and that makes them feel like they exist beyond what we see on screen. Braff’s control of tone, his superb use of music, his mastery of image and feel for creating moments of moments of great sweetness and insight are the qualities of a great film-maker. He makes us want to follow Largeman’s journey as a man and continue with him on his own journey as a film-maker.
Parents should know that the movie has extensive substance abuse. Characters smoke, drink, and take a lot of drugs. There are brief but explicit sex scenes and many sexual references including a young man who is unhappy about his mother’s affair with a younger man. Characters use very strong language and engage in risky and foolish behavior. There is a discussion of suicide and mental illness. One character is a thief. A strength of the movie is its positive portrayal of a person with a disability.
Families who see this movie should talk about why it was so difficult for Largeman to talk to his father. Why was it important to the story that his father is a psychiatrist? What did Largeman learn from Sam? From Albert?
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate Pieces of April and The Station Agent.