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We don't find out until half-way through the movie why Andrew Largeman takes so many antidepressants. We just know he's been reduced to not much more than a walking shadow, numb to all but the most vicious stimuli. An up-and-coming twentysomething actor, Andrew goes back home to Newark for the first time in nine years to attend his mother's funeral, get his head—prone to lightning flashes of pain—checked by a notable neurologist ... and get stoned with his friends.
What he didn't come home for was to fall in love. But that's what happens when he meets the illusive and obstinately original Samantha in the neurologist's waiting room. They bond as they bury her pet hamster in her backyard, and seal their emotional deal while rambling around the city on Andrew's grandfather's motorcycle. Along for the ride in the sidecar is Andrew's best friend, Mark, who, incidentally, digs graves for a living and does nothing but smoke pot for fun. Sound a bit off-kilter? Garden State is just that kind of movie.
Garden State's melancholy examination of really messed up people finally finding love seems to say, "You, too, can find love, no matter how damaged you are." And it takes a moment at the end to point out how much hard work awaits Andrew—even after falling for Sam—to pull himself out of his depression, bad habits and overdependence on prescription medication. (Oxymoronically, the film doesn't ever point out the dangers of dabbling in illegal substances.) Familial love is revered and respected, and the ultimate mother is deemed a sacrificial one who loves her young son enough to let him wipe his nose on her sleeve. (But the concept of accessible bliss within the four walls of home is reduced to a wispy dream. Andrew says, "That idea of home is gone. Maybe that's all family really is: a group of people who miss the same imaginary place.")
Sam says she doesn't believe in God. She and Andrew talk about how he's Jewish, but not really Jewish, and about how nobody goes to Temple except on holidays.
It's bad enough that there's the implication that Sam and Andrew have sex. (Their bare legs and shoulders are seen peeking out from under the covers, afterwards.) But what's gratingly gratuitous is a scene in which a hotel bellman lets people watch a couple having sex in a room. Moviegoers see through the hole in the wall along with those slack-jawed Peeping Toms, witnessing an explicit scene of fully-nude intercourse. An adult game of Spin the Bottle (which, among other things, prompts two women to kiss) turns into something of an orgy as blurred images and quick camera cuts clue in viewers that clothes are coming off and partners are pairing up. During a later party, Andrew, Sam and others strip down to their underwear and jump into a pool.
Much is made of one dog scratching himself, and another using Andrew's leg for sexual pleasure.
On TV a crocodile begins to devour a fawn; the scene cuts before anything is seen but a flash of motion. In Andrew's dream he's in a plane that's about to crash.
Crude or Profane Language
More than 75 f- and s-words. Characters relish the f-word in particular, using it casually, emphatically, angrily, sexually and in combination with "mother." Harshly vulgar and obscene terms are applied to sexual acts and anatomy. God's name is interjected a half-dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The parties Andrew attends are merely excuses to get stoned, slammed, toked, drunk, high and, as the guys are fond of saying, "f---ed up." Bongs, blunts, Ecstasy and coke are all "recreationally" and routinely abused onscreen.
Other Negative Elements
Discovering that the ripped-off nozzle of a gas pump is still stuck in his car's tank, Andrew merely throws it away. He's clocked going over 80 in a 30 mph zone while driving his motorcycle. Because it turns out that the (at first verbally abusive) cop is an old friend of his, he gets off scot-free. Mark steals from a store by "returning" an item he hasn't purchased. It's also implied that he steals jewelry from caskets before he buries them. Andrew's cop friend says the reason he's joined the force is so he "can get laid." Sam is a compulsive liar, a character trait that makes her all the more attractive and cuddly to Andrew. Jokes are made about Andrew playing a "retarded" quarterback on TV.
Natalie Portman is Queen Amidala no more! By that I mean she's no longer a one-dimensional cutout from a galaxy far, far away. In Garden State she's current, vibrant, cleverly quirky and endearing, serving as a Technicolor antidote to her intentionally downbeat surroundings. I also mean that her participation in the drug- and sex-infused Garden State, along with her recent role in Cold Mountain, will forever insulate her from what she must think are unjust accusations that she's the cute and wholesome girl next door. Assuming Mark is on a mission to score cocaine, Andrew tries to protect Sam from their nefarious pursuits, insisting that they've "corrupted this innocent girl enough for one day." She immediately retorts, "I'm not innocent!"
Instead of incorruptibility, the goal here is to "allow ourselves to be whatever it is that we are." "What Garden State's really about is how short life is," writes director Zach Braff in his online blog, "and how we get caught up in so many entanglements and insecurities and worries and obsessions and trivial arguments while life races right by us shaking it's head at how seriously we take ourselves." Then he adds, "Keep in mind that the sun's gonna burn out in about a million years and truly nothing will have mattered." And that's how Garden State turns the corner from being a positive reminder about the value of a life well-lived into a short-sighted, spiritually dead rant about how the only thing in life that means anything is what's happening right now.
Justifiably or not, New Jersey is infamous for its polluted beaches and toxic landfills. Garden State just adds to the litter.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Zach Braff as Andrew Largeman; Natalie Portman as Sam; Peter Sarsgaard as Mark; Jean Smart as Carol; Ian Holm as Gideon Largeman; Method Man as Diego
Zach Braff ( Wish I Was Here)