A good friend likes to say that there's only one kind of great pop song — the song that someone had to create, as though the writer and performer had no choice. The song can be corny or cynical, upbeat or downhearted; it doesn't matter. All that counts is that the person performing the song does so without guile, without pretense, and without caring what anyone else thinks. What counts for the songwriter is the release; how you choose to catch it is your business.
The Shins are a band a lot like that: guys who wear their pet sounds and rubber souls on their shirt sleeves and make you love them for daring to be so bold about being so vulnerable. Their albums sound like memories of old songs and of old thoughts and old emotions, commingled in melodies and lyrics that seem as if they were made by men who had to perform them to keep on existing. They're the kind of band that will “change your life, I swear,” says Sam (Natalie Portman), the girl in the movie Garden State who will change the life of a boy in need of drastic alteration. The music of the Shins, and of bands of similar origin and intent, shimmers throughout much of Garden State, in which Portman plays a woman who lies to make herself more interesting and Zach Braff plays a man who lies to pay the rent. Braff's character is named Andrew Largeman, a small-screen actor best known for playing “the retarded quarterback” in a made-for-TV movie. Andrew acts, he says, because he's only comfortable in other people's skin.
Sam and Andrew, who goes by “Large,” strike up their relationship in a doctor's office. She tells him she's there with a friend, which is a lie. He tells her he's there because of a sudden onslaught of splitting headaches, the result of his deciding to stop taking the anti-depressants his father, a psychiatrist played by Ian Holm, has been prescribing since Andrew was 9, when something tragic happened in the Largeman household. Rather than deal with it, dear old Dad thought it better to deaden it; it's hard to talk about bad things with a mouth full of pills and a brain full of fog. It doesn't take us long to find out what that bad thing is. Braff, who also wrote and directed the movie, spills it to Sam just before their like turns to love. The movie is not about hidden secrets, but about the effect they have on people who don't know how to cope with bad things and don't believe in good things when they finally do happen.
Garden State arrives in theaters bearing the burden of having come to the Sundance Film Festival in January as an unheralded little movie made by a TV actor and having left Utah $5 million richer, thanks to Fox Searchlight and Miramax. Audience members who might have been wooed now expect to be wowed, to make sure they got every bang out of the bucks spent on the thing. It withstands such expectations. Garden State charms with ease and moves with grace; it's warm but never mushy, languorous but never groggy, rueful but never despondent. It's like a perfect pop song — that thing that makes you smile and tear up at the same time.
It should have been bad — could have been, if you just read the synopsis and recall the countless other movies you've seen that sound familiar. A struggling actor ditches his job as a waiter to come home to a brown-grass-and-gray-skies Unpleasantville (suburban New Jersey, in this instance) after his distant dad calls to tell him that his mother has drowned in the bathtub. When he returns home, the actor is reunited with all his old pals, two of whom are digging his mother's grave. They refer to him as “Jersey's De Niro,” sort of reverentially and sort of sarcastically. The actor meets a beautiful, quirky girl who will change his life. And so it goes — look homeward, Large. And the name “Largeman” is a rookie mistake. He's small; we get it.
But Garden State, with its strange detours and loving details, has the feel of something too personal to be dismissed; it wants to be liked but doesn't beg for your affection. Braff populates his movie with people you've never met but would enjoy knowing, from Sam's ingenuously affectionate mom to Andrew's old pal Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who smokes dope and robs graves and steals from hardware stores but has only good intentions toward old friends. Even Holm's Gideon Largeman isn't a bad guy; he just doesn't know how to talk to his own son or deal with the 26-year-old, especially as Andrew is coming out of his funk and emerging as someone who can feel for himself. Particularly lovable is Sam, and not only because it's a role that reminds us how wondrous an actress Portman can be when not choking on George Lucas' dry variant of the English language.
Braff, winsome and just shy of whiny on Scrubs, plays Largeman as damaged goods but isn't looking for sympathy; he finds his tragic life a little bit funny, too. He's just a guy without a home (“A family,” he figures, “is just a group of people that miss the same imaginary place”) and looking for something to feel and someone to love. Garden State will remind some of Wes Anderson, others of Hal Ashby, still others of young Mike Nichols; they're Braff's influences and muses, the echoes in his melody. But Garden State feels like autobiography, like something only Braff could have made, with all the me-myself-and-I's taken out, and that leaves plenty of room for you.