Garden State (2003)

2004-07-28 (Limited release)

What is Method Man doing in Garden State? The explanation is probably complicated (having to do with his process of role selection, friendships, and career aspirations), but on the surface, it looks simple: he’s performing yet another disappointing, unfunny stereotype in someone else’s project. This time, it’s not an overtly exploitative studio ordeal (How High, Method & Red), but a small-scale, independent project. But still. While Zach Braff’s mostly sweet feature debut lapses occasionally into the typical province of such things (an intimate, damaged-kids’ romantic, it loves its quirky “touches”), Method Man stands out as a hard swerve into what’s known as the utterly superfluous gag.

His appearance comes late, without context. This is the general background: young Andrew Largeman (Braff), a struggling Hollywood actor who has returned from L.A. to New Jersey to attend his mother’s funeral, decides that, for his last day in town, he’ll go on a non-adventure with his childhood friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard, excellent, again), who leads him to a hotel where Method Man’s Diego sells peeps at naughty guests.

And this is the more specific background, which has nothing to do with Method Man: Andrew — called Large by his friends — is a pleasant but terrifically damaged young man (26 years old). This is owing mainly to his difficult relationship with his uptight psychiatrist father, Gideon (Ian Holm), who raised his son on meds (Lithium, Paxil, Zoloft, and others less popular) and incessant therapy, stemming from an accident when Large was nine. “As far back as I can remember,” he sighs, “I’ve been medicated.”

This accident looms menacingly in Large’s mind (or at least in the film’s run-up to his salvation), and Garden State gets to it gradually. En route, Large re-engages with past relationships, Mark included. These episodes — an all night party where Large agrees to do drugs and ends up with “BALLS” magic-markered on his forehead — suggest that, for all Large’s concerns about his own lack of professional and emotional progress, he’s actually doing fine. Mark, by contrast, tends to sit around at home with his cool and awfully patient mom Carol (Jean Smart), annoying her with his dope-smoking, disapproval of her boyfriend material (granted, it’s a former classmate of his, a little unnerving), and hackneyed lack of ambition.

On this point, Large both wonders at and empathizes with his friend (he tells his own father, in his own rebellious mode, “I’m okay with being unimpressive, I sleep better”). The occasion of the funeral only brings Gideon and Large’s painful history to whatever surface it is they’re pretending that day. And so, the son ends up pleasing the father by visiting with another doctor, Dr. Cohen (Ron Liebman).

The appointment itself is only good for stating the obvious (“You need to find a psychiatrist who isn’t your father”), but the broader occasion proves Large’s turning point. In the waiting room, he meets the amazing Sam (Natalie Portman). Not only is she a lovely girl with an active sense of humor, she also impresses him with the music selection on her headphones: “It’ll change your life for sure,” she promises. And she’s right. (It’s the Shins, just one of several similar choices on the film’s soundtrack, including Zero 7, Iron & Wine, Nick Drake, and even a track from Simon & Garfunkel, in case you missed that the movie is revisiting central themes from The Graduate.)

While Sam is saddled with being a standard plot device, the quirky girl who shows the quirky hero just how great it is to be quirky, Portman is awkwardly enchanting in the part, deflecting attention away from her wearisome function. Sam’s relationship with her mother appears to be healthy if appealingly strange: they share their cluttered home with hamsters and love one another unconditionally, making them a good model for Large, as he can’t imagine such a thing.

The reason Sam’s still living at home? It’s not a huge reveal, but she has epilepsy. (Thankfully, the film doesn’t belabor this point, only makes it a point of connection for the young lovers to be.) As part of Large’s movie-length rehabilitation program, Sam is damaged in a way that allows her to appreciate Large’s damage, and more importantly, to induce his healing: “There’s a handful of normal kid things that I kind of missed,” he confesses. “You feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist,” she sagely observes.

This concept — that “home” is nonexistent but also organizes memories, hopes, and desires — is the film’s most elegant, and it illustrates it variously. The more successful images include a visit with a mysterious but also pleasantly mundane couple who are measuring an “ultimate abyss,” and thus living at the bottom of a gorge in an ark-like abode. The least successful, however, involve high-school-boyish business, like Method Man’s pimpy peep show.