Garden State is actually a drug trip movie in reverse. Whereas other movies about drug addiction subject the viewer through the insanity of hallucinations, silly antics, and run-ins with the law, Garden State starts out in the doldrums of a barbiturate-induced malaise. Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) wanders aimlessly through life, suffering from a recurring nightmare that he's on a plane that's about to crash. While everyone screams, "Large" just turns up the air. That pretty much sums up his life.
The death of Andrew's mother calls him home to New Jersey (Garden State, get it), and it's only then that the pieces start to fit together. A quadriplegic, Mrs. Largeman and Andrew have a bitter past. It doesn't help that his father, Gideon (the magnificent Ian Holm) alternately blames Andrew for his mother's condition and coldly distances himself from his son. The confrontation between them is a long time coming.
Along the way, Andrew reconnects with all of his old friends in Jersey. It's not a particularly flattering portrayal. They're all in service roles, be it outrageously offensive police officers, meandering stoner gravediggers, or knights for the Medieval Times dinner restaurant. Okay, that last job is cool. But the character is a jerk.
It seems that Andrew didn't miss much. While he was on mind-altering medication as a struggling actor in Los Angeles, his friends (and in at least one case, his friends' mom) are all toking up in the mansion of a guy who invented "silent Velcro." And yet, with all that money, all they do is waste it away getting high.
Thankfully, that fate is not for Andrew. Away from his drugs for the first time in his life, he begins to wake up and the audience is encouraged to wake up with him. The film's music, dialogue, and camera angles shift from dreamy floating sequences to a much snappier pace. It almost makes suffering along with Andrew worth it.
The turning point is the arrival of Sam, played by Natalie Portman. An inveterate pixie of a liar, she comes from a wacky household where burying pets (in the pet graveyard, of course) is a sacred obligation. Fans of Portman always knew she could act, but Garden State forcefully reminds us as she ranges from timid vulnerability to passionate love, from heart wrenching sorrow to boundless joy. She turns Sam into a living, breathing woman and a worthy counterpart to the not-quite-awake Andrew.
In between, a lot of things don't happen. Andrew avoids his father but visits the bathtub where his mother drowned. The question as to whether or not her death was a suicide is left hanging--except in the special features, where the confrontation between father and son is fleshed out. They go to a lot of parties, visit some wacky characters, and go on a quest for a treasure at the bottom of an Abyss (Braf played Dungeons & Dragons, I can tell).
Garden State's biggest flaw is that it wants to be an art film, a tale of redemption, a coming of age story, a father/son weeper, a small town homage, and a music video. Because Braff also wrote and directed, his artist sensibilities are perpetually at war with what makes for a good story…and it's all on screen. The beginning is slow and meandering, but that's on purpose and appropriate for an art film. It doesn't make for a compelling story though. The ending is forced and more than a little odd--there's a feint at a different ending, dancing at the edge of art-house sensibilities, only to pull back at the last second. Which is a good thing too, because otherwise we'd end up with the same kind of non-ending as Lost in Translation.
Ultimately, Garden State is about that verdant state of being in every one of us, the child who has no idea his actions will have repercussions for the rest of his life. Returning to that raw human condition of love, hate, vulnerability and strength, elevates Garden State to more than just a hokey hometown film.