Jersey Chronicle

The star of 'Scrubs' shows promise in his directing debut, but he needs to stop being so damn sentimental

Few directors make a great first film. Usually, the first one is a learning experience and--though you can often see the hints of what's to come--usually bears the marks of mistakes, which, if the gods of filmmaking smile, will not be repeated.

However, if a director's first film is well-received, or if he's already famous enough, he might just get the horrible opportunity to surround himself with yes men and become one of those paragons of lost promise, like Spike Lee or George Lucas.

This is my great fear for Zach Braff, whose freshman outing, Garden State, is equal parts excellence and error. Unfortunately, the error is making his film overly sentimental, and that's exactly the kind of thing that's going to be praised by the weak-minded minions of mawkishness who flock to see filmic feelings in all their forms. If that happens, and he's lauded for his movie's worst elements, he runs the risk of becoming a great force for evil in the holy world of cinema.

Garden State, you see, is a visually engaging, sometimes visually brilliant film, which slowly spirals into bathos. It starts well, but by the end, it's as cute and sad as The Little Match Girl, only with marginally more sex scenes and drug use.

Braff not only wrote and directed the film; he also stars in it, and his performance may well be the best thing about it. Plus, he's just really interesting to look at. While he does not have a classically handsome face, it is a strangely compelling one, with an enormous nose that catches the eye like a barbed fish hook.

Braff plays Andrew Largeman, a 26-year-old man who has been sedated on lithium and anti-depressants for most of his life. The story of how he got that way is so overly dramatic that it almost derails the film, but it involves a paraplegic mother, a traumatic childhood experience, a controlling psychiatrist who is Largeman's father and a faulty piece of plastic.

When this mother dies, there's tragedy and sorrow and pathos--and, like, sadness--and Largeman must return to his New Jersey home after a nine-year absence. Once there, he has to confront his distant father, start his spiritual rebirth, reconnect with his slacker high-school friends and fall in love with Samantha (Natalie Portman), the zany, free-spirited woman whom all emotionally dead men must meet in films about emotional awakening.

The plot--Largeman's return to the world of feelings from the sweet cocoon of medicated emotionless--is pretty standard stuff, but the visual presentation of the film is not. Braff occasionally gets carried away with visual jokes, but most of them work, and really, what's funnier than a man walking up with the word "Balls" written on his forehead?

More than the comedy, though, the film's visual appeal lies in the photo-like compositions, Nan Goldin-esque palette, and bizarre set dressings. A house with the world's largest Habitrail, a land-locked boat that sits on the edge of an abyss, the secret room where all sex acts are visible, and a drug den replete with swirling psychedelic teenage girls are all coated in super-saturated '70s colors and then arranged like Viewmaster slides, giving the whole thing a wide-angle, 3-D effect that makes Garden State hypnotic even when the script gets a bit treacly and annoying.

With this original and acid-candy fresh visual sensibility, and a cast that includes not only Braff and Portman but also Peter Sarsgaard, who's one of the more promising young actors out there, and Ian Holm, who is rumored (or, as he likes to say, "rumoured") to be no slouch in the thespian arts, it's hard to imagine that Garden State could go too far wrong.

And it doesn't go too far wrong; it just goes wrong enough that one is left with a saccharine taste clinging to one's otherwise well-treated cinematic palette. While there's a basic artistry that keeps this from being your pappy's brand of sappy, it's still a heavy drink from the Terms of Endearment well when you should have just had a refreshing quaff from the The Graduate pond.

Which is to say, this is sort of like classic American late-'60s/'70s filmmaking, with its story of a character's rising consciousness and a personal journey into and through an abyss. Kind of like Easy Rider or Five Easy Pieces or some other movie with "easy" in the title. And if Braff's inspiration is that last golden age of American cinema, then I think we can expect good things from him.

But if nobody says "no" to him, and all his hanger-on friends and soul-destroying sycophants tell him how moved they were by his movie and how touching his sentimental touches were, then we're going to wind up with another Sundance-ready emoto-maker who churns out stuff that Julia Roberts will star in when she's trying to revive her career after a plastic surgery disaster leaves her with a look of permanent sorrow. And if that happens, it'll be a sad waste, because this first effort is at least halfway good, and that's 50 percent less badness than you find in most veteran moviemakers' best work.

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