An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

           Garden State ” is a delicious concoction that has poured forth from the innovative, often wacky mind of independent filmmaker Zach Braff.  Braff has written and directed this marvelous mix of humor and tenderness with barely a misstep.

          After nine years of estrangement from his family, Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) – known as Large – has returned to New Jersey for the funeral of his mother.  Rumors have it that he has been living the life of a movie actor in Hollywood ; reality says he has been a sub-standard waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant living in a drug induced fog.  Now he has left his drugs Los Angeles .  Welcome to sobriety in New Jersey .

          Large arrives and starts running into old high school buddies:  the gravediggers working on his mother’s grave, a hardware salesman moonlighting in a pyramid scheme, and, in a marvelous scene, the fledgling cop who stops Large for speeding.  Then there’s the pal who has recently patented noiseless Velcro.  This fellow has bought a castle with his new fortune and has no idea what to do either with his empty home or with his life.  You’ll remember these sights:  the golf cart in the empty castle, the fast-food knight clanking in his armor, Sam’s South African brother who is studying Criminal Justice at Rutgers , Sam tap dancing in front of the fire.           

          This movie is a feast of unconnected thoughts, encounters, and sights - each leading randomly to the next.  The characters float through the days unencumbered by plans or obligations. Large goes to a party with the gravedigger, keeps a doctor’s appointment where he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), and visits the castle of the Velcro tycoon.  Sam brings Large home where he is immediately knocked over by enormous, badly behaved dogs (we just don’t have time to train them, Sam’s mother says.)

          We are now in a small tract house where everything is an offense to the eye.  Outside, a dirty swimming tube floats in the plastic cover of the above-ground pool along with rotting leaves and rainwater.  Sam and Large make their way past this to a pet graveyard where they bury the hamster who couldn’t master his wheel.  For Sam and her mother, all this is normal.  They are equally flaky and full of love.

          The wistful Sam simply sprinkles on Large all the unexpected small treats of life he has never known.  As these endearing oddballs walk through life one extremely funny step at a time, we realize every one of them is propelled by kindness - a bunch of New Jersey eccentrics with good intentions and the tolerance required by such friendships. 

          Zach Braff’s playful mind is full of fanciful detail.  Natalie Portman is a magical flake; each supporting actor is solidly on target, and I haven’t had so much fun since “Black Cat, White Cat” delivered the sight of a man on a tugboat watering the flowers in his window box as he floated past the city of Vienna .             

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