"(Studio executives) put all this money into these huge movies, and then no one goes to see them. Then everyone in town passes on my little movie, and it does really well." Such was writer/director/actor Zach Braff's assessment of Garden State, one of the most notable independent breakout hits of 2004, which not only earned twice its modest $2.5 million budget the moment the distribution deal was signed at Sundance, but then went on to clear nearly $27 million in mostly limited release. So much for the alleged business acumen of virtually everyone in Hollywood Braff shopped his script around for several years (including the music that would eventually appear on the popular soundtrack album), but it was only when funding was independently raised that the cameras started rolling. What's emerged since then is a film that is considered by some to be the Graduate of a new generation. Braff stars as Andrew Largeman, a New Jersey native from a wealthy family who left home for boarding school when he was 14 and found middling success as an actor in Hollywood as a young adult. Now in his mid-20s, he never considered returning to the Garden State until word came from his father (Ian Holm) that his mother had died. Her later years as a paraplegic forged a seemingly bottomless chasm between Andrew and his father and since he only plans to stay in New Jersey for a few days, it's an emotional minefield he'd rather not tread upon. But a chance meeting with local resident Sam (Natalie Portman) causes him to reflect upon his life in greater detail in part, because he plans to free himself of the psychiatric medication he's been on since childhood. But also because he suspects that he's really not living very much at all.
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With an annual glut of formula product coming out of Hollywood every year action, sci-fi, rom-coms, Oscar-bait and a great deal of it crashing with a resounding thud at the box-office, it's not surprising that Garden State earned nearly ten times its budget, and mostly on word-of-mouth recommendations. It's a difficult film to encapsulate, and deservedly so there's little in the way of a conventional plot, the central character is largely passive (and occasionally inert) throughout the opening sequences, and the budding romance that emerges between Andrew and Sam is based just as much on friendship and trust and learning about each other than anything approaching torrid passion. But perhaps that's the key to this film's unusual brilliance. Like life, there's no three-act screenplay. At times, days can be filled with small, funny incidents, or simply with silence. At night, sometimes people just sit and talk. Those who care will listen, and sometimes they understand and empathize in unexpected ways. The loose randomness of Garden State instills it with the authenticity of youth or perhaps the end of it contained in the sort of formative week that everyone experiences once or twice in their own lives, which makes it very tempting for viewers to perhaps glimpse sketches of their own autobiographies, even if they really aren't there. It's a film that's worth returning to again and again, both for the script and the strong performances, particularly from Zach Braff (who claims that a great deal of the material comes from his own life or people he knows), while Natalie Portman's ethereal beauty and boundless energy creates a suitable counterpoint to his emotionally threadbare state of mind. Fox's DVD release of Garden State features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include a commentary track with Braff and Portman, a second track with Braff, director of photography Lawrence Sher, editor Myron Kerstein, and production designer Judy Becker, 16 deleted scenes with commentary by Braff, a loosely-knitted "making-of" documentary (27 min.), outtakes (3 min.), and a soundtrack promo. Keep-case.