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photos by Lara Shipley

It’s a Jersey Thing

August 6th, 2004 · No Comments

I didn’t think that the movie Garden State could possibly be as good as its elegantly produced trailers (the gorgeous Frou Frou “teaser” one especially), but Heather McDonald nailed it: This is the best movie I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s true that, especially in the latter half, it occasionally flirts with self-help schmaltz. And sometimesâ??as in the scene shown in the trailer where Zach Braff stands against wallpaper in a shirt of the same material, blending into the background chameleonlikeâ??there are some implausible set-ups just for the sake of a great shot.

But this is quibbling… especially since those great shots come with such astonishing frequency. In fact, the power of the film isn’t so much from its plot in the conventional narrative sense, but a structure akin to that of the Tralfamadorian novels Kurt Vonnegut describes in Slaughterhouse Five: a series of vignettes which, when viewed from above, as a whole (Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians see the world four-dimensionally, all times at once) fit together mosaic-like.

The cinematography here is so exquisiteâ??film schools are going to be showing this one to freshmen for decadesâ??that you’re certainly encouraged to see it that way; that is, not as a linear story, but as a sequence of pretty stills arranged like jewels on a thread, perhaps not connected directly, but reflecting each other. And when the dialogue does avoid those occasional flirtations with schmaltz, it’s pitch-perfect accurate in capturing the moments of human connection or failure to connect that, more than the official plot, are the movie’s real story. It’s dead on enough, anyway, that I found myself squirming in my seat at a few of the more awkward moments.

Of course, maybe my affection for this one is driven in part by personal resonance. It’s not just that I grew up in New Jersey, though there is that. One of the friends with whom I saw it later tentatively described it as a “coming of age” movie, which isn’t quite right if by that one means the traditional sort of bildungsroman; the characters here are adults in their mid to late twenties. But there is a kind of parallel experience I think a lot of people around that age haveâ??through with school and the exhultation of just-post-school and suddenly feeling discomfitingly unmoored. The semi-existentialist stance Garden State ends up taking to that period makes it one of those rare films that leaves you feeling as though a thin outer layer of skin has been stripped away: You’re suddenly a bit more vulnerable, but the cool air outside the theater feels fresher and more immediately there as well.

Anyway, long story short: I was already committed to seeing any film Peter Sarsgaard played in. I’m now resolving to see whatever Zach Braff directs next as well.

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