Emo Cinema 

Lightweight comedy Garden State has distinct mood and compelling undercurrent, but still doesn't add up to much

Lightweight comedy Garden State has distinct mood and compelling undercurrent, but still doesn't add up to much

It was only a matter of time before someone made a straight-up "emo" movie. The musical genre has long since drifted from its sensitive-boy indie-rock origins, infiltrating the nighttime TV soap The O.C. and Craig Thompson's weighty graphic novel Blankets, and it continues to creep steadily through the mass media. Now, in Zach Braff's feature debut Garden State, the writer-director casts himself as melancholy part-time actor Andrew Largeman, who returns home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral and learns how to feel again.

How you respond to that plot description may well gauge how well you handle Garden State. The hallmarks of emo—colossal self-absorption, dreamy romanticism, favoring an insider sensibility—are all over Braff's film, which is mostly about "Large" hanging out with his eclectic group of friends and trying to get over a strained middle-class upbringing. The turning point comes when he meets free-spirited epileptic Sam (played by Natalie Portman), the kind of girl who suddenly contorts her body and makes guttural noises just "to do something no one's ever done before." The two of them sit around with pot-smoking gravedigger Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and twentysomething millionaire Jesse (Armando Riesco) and have conversations that start with lines like, "Maybe family isn't just about who you're related to."

This is pretty wan stuff, and not helped by Braff's groaning stabs at quirky comedy. (There's a joke about "The Clapper," if you can believe that.) But it does help that Braff paces Garden State like a comedy, urging his cast and himself to deliver the dialogue fairly rapidly. Braff also has a striking visual sense—using time-lapse photography, muted colors and spare framing—which merges with a soundtrack filled with Coldplay, The Shins, Iron & Wine and Nick Drake to create a haunted mood. And though a lot of Garden State has the depth of a hip car commercial, the film also contains a compelling undercurrent, as Braff's characters tour a weird suburban underworld where luxury hotels have seedy back rooms and people live in houseboats perched alongside deep canyons.

Garden State's distinctive look and evident sincerity will likely make it a favorite of older high school students and young collegians. It plays like the kind of movie Braff probably liked when he was growing up: The Graduate, maybe, or Harold & Maude, or Rushmore. And though it's not as good as any of those films, Garden State has its own sophomoric charm. Even open-minded old fogeys should appreciate how Braff captures those golden years—when young people learn how to control the intense feelings of hope and despair that come rushing in every second of every minute of every day.

—Noel Murray

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