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Beauty in the Breakdown.

While I may not have been in the right frame-of-mind for Anchorman, writer-director-actor Zach Braff‘s debut Garden State later that evening settled over me like a cool, refreshing breeze. Other than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and, for sentimental fanboy reasons, Spiderman 2), I’d say Garden State has leapt to the top of my 2004 list so far. I could see some people finding it overly talky and pretentious, others too choppy, drug-ridden, and episodic, but, well, it struck a chord with me.

Seduced in by this teaser (and the accompanying song, Frou Frou’s “Let Go”, which has been flitting about my head for days now), I entered expecting a stylish but showy and self-indulgent film, as befitting a first-time triple threat. (At worst, I feared something along the lines of a Whit Stillman or P.T. Anderson flick.) But Garden State feels not only intelligent and confident but grounded, understated, and, like its dazed, over-medicated protagonist, even somewhat self-effacing. More than anything, I found the movie a sweet, quirky, and good-natured tone poem about awakening to both the pain and the possibilities of the life around you.

Admittedly, there are elements of the movie that don’t work very well. The father-son angst with Ian Holm doesn’t amount to much, and its resolution is the closest the film ever gets to derailing. Zach Braff and Natalie Portman have a lot of conversations in this film, and occasionally they do seem like movie people talking. (Nevertheless, this film resurrects Portman as an actress in my mind…she’s so flat and awful in the Star Wars films, yet she’s effervescent and adorable here. What is it about those blue screens?) Let me put it this way: There’s a scene (on the poster) where the three main characters — Braff, Portman, and an excellent Peter Sarsgaard as the local stoner/gravedigger — scream into a void (to the strands of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Only Living Boy in New York”…yes, comparisons to The Graduate are apt.) This will either come off as pretentious hooey or seem kinda touching…I obviously bought into it.

In other words, I doubt it’s everybody’s cup of tea, but I found Garden State an eloquent little film that’s at turns playful and poignant, one that — like Eternal Sunshine and Lost in Translation last year — manages to capture some of the elusive magic and tentative self-discovery inherent in relationships old and new. Plus, it’s got Natalie Portman briefly interacting with Method Man…that’s gotta be worth close to the price of admission, right?

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