When filmmakers talk about making a “generational film”—and 29-year-old Zach Braff talks just that way—what they’re really talking about is curating a soundtrack: the harmonic melancholy of Simon and Garfunkel in The Graduate, the up-tempo pop in The Breakfast Club, or the anthemic, boom-box art rock in the late-eighties touchstone Say Anything. So it’s not surprising that in Braff’s Garden State, when prodigal son Large (Braff) meets his love interest, Sam (Natalie Portman), the first thing she does is hand him her headphones.
“You gotta hear this one song,” Sam tells him. “It’ll change your life.” For the next twenty seconds, we get Portman smiling at Braff while he listens to “New Slang,” an acoustic confection by the Shins with the lyrics “Turn me back into the pet I was when we met / I was happier then with no mind-set.” It’s a risky, listening-booth moment, since if you think the song is weak, you’re going to check out of Braff’s movie. Right. About. Now. But if you buy it—and given the Shins’ melodic sweet tooth, it’s hard not to—Braff is betting that the soundtrack is going to carry you the rest of the way, from flirtation through misunderstanding (Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First”), all the way to tearful airport reconciliation (Frou Frou’s “Let Go”).
“With Garden State, I wanted to make a film that wasn’t cynical, that took the temperature of what it was like to be a twentysomething and a little bit lost,” Braff says with an earnestness that defies pretension, over a sushi lunch at the Mercer Hotel. “Like what Say Anything and Harold and Maude were for me.”
Of course, you want to be suspicious of such sincerity, especially coming from a filmmaker best known for spit-takes and gurney pratfalls on the medical sitcom Scrubs. But while the film may have its moments of bathos, Garden State is finally admirable for its brazen vulnerability: It’s Braff’s genuine attempt to make an unashamedly personal movie about coming of age in suburbia.
"The ﬁlm’s journey leads straight to the unmedicated male breakdown—when Sam catches Large’s ﬁrst tear in a paper cup."
At its best, the film captures the meditative surrealism of twentysomething angst, via unhurried, carefully composed visual riffs—like Large’s walking past a bank of automatic faucets in Newark airport and setting them off, one by one, or solemnly examining the pharmacological superstore in his medicine cabinet. The movie mixes slapstick commercial appeal and loftier ambitions; for every carefully composed frame of Large’s dissolution, there’s one dog-masturbation joke. And if Braff’s metaphysics sometimes seem more gestural than considered, the film keeps winning you over. His screenwriting and directorial debut is the equivalent of a mix tape, the kind that would fit into the genre labeled emo, short for “emotional,” music generally recognizable for its searching, confessional qualities—willfully unironic, and trying hard for soulfulness.
Braff is a bit emo himself. He really wants you to feel something; these songs are, after all, supposed to change your life. “These were the songs I was listening to while I was making the film,” he says, “and I just loved all of them.” Braff supersaturates his debut in the yearning, arpeggioed soundtrack of Iron & Wine, Remy Zero, even Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” at the crescendoed kiss. (“I never thought we’d get it, but I just told them their music scored my childhood,” Braff says about appealing to the duo for the rights. “They watched a clip and said yes.”)
Braff’s lightly autobiographical film follows the return of Large, a young aspiring actor in L.A. and Zoloft zombie, to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. As he reacclimates, he kicks his meds, angles for reconciliation with his father (Ian Holm), and falls for Sam, a quirky, many-layered local. In the era of drug-induced stability, the journey of Garden State leads toward the unmedicated male breakdown—when Sam catches Large’s first tear in a paper cup.
This is one of the many moments in the movie that waver right between melodrama and admirable emotional risk. Not only is he crying for the first time since his mother died, but Large is doing it in the bathtub where she drowned. But Garden State’s sincerity would be cloying if Braff hadn’t gotten some tips on tone from his three years on television. He keeps the film buoyant with a steady stream of self-deprecation (like balls written on his forehead after a night of partying), absurd cutaways, and disbelief splashed across his wide face. “What I learned from Bill Lawrence, the creator of Scrubs, was that as anything gets too heavy, you turn it on its head and you have a release,” Braff says.
By any measure, Braff has played his last three years well. In January 2001, Braff, then 25, was working as a waiter at the posh Le Colonial in Beverly Hills, struggling to get cast and teetering on what he would call, with only trace elements of sarcasm, “the infinite abyss.” “I was depressed,” he says. “I thought maybe I’d come out from New York too early, that my agents weren’t powerful enough, that I was over my head.” His biggest breaks were in the past, as a punky gym rat in The Broken Hearts Club, Woody Allen’s son in Manhattan Murder Mystery, and the cross-dressing hero of a CBS After School Special called My Summer as a Girl. (“Yes, I Naired,” he says.) He was about to come back to South Orange, New Jersey, where he’d grown up, when his agent told him to go through one more pilot season before packing up. The first part he auditioned for was as hapless medical resident J.D. on Scrubs.