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To Andrew Largeman, a 26-year-old New Jersey native who hasn’t been home in nine years, his mother’s death is less consequential than seeing that his old buddies still think nothing of smoking dope for breakfast and writing “BALLS” on someone’s face. Not that Large, as he’s called, is coming from such a high place himself: In his barely furnished apartment in Los Angeles, the struggling actor sleeps through his father’s phone calls and self-medicates from a cabinet full of prescription pills, then shows up late and barely reactive to his day job at a snooty Vietnamese restaurant. Large’s stupor follows him east for his mom’s funeral, though he leaves the pills behind, hoping for once to feel something other than numb.
Jersey pall, postgraduate angst, a death that spurs a new look on life—Garden State, written and directed by Scrubs actor Zach Braff, sounds as tired as its blank protagonist. But although Braff, who also stars, treads familiar territory in his filmmaking debut, Garden State is an exercise in restraint and honesty that manages to keep its coming-of-age story fresh.
For one, the melodrama of the drowning of Large’s paraplegic mother and the issues that led to his estrangement is kept in the background, coming to the fore only in an occasional line about why he’s home—or, more frequently, in the weary look on his face. The script instead focuses on the series of awkward reunions that Large (Braff) experiences while back home, as well as his new friendship with Sam (Natalie Portman), a goofy, Shins-loving epileptic he meets in a waiting room.
Braff’s ideas of keeping it real are somewhat related to those of another young Jersey auteur, Kevin Smith, yet Braff’s imperfect universe feels much more genuine. Garden State’s characters are sad and weird and lost, but are never movie-quirky or too damn clever to be believed. Conversations unfold naturally, full of the squirmy pauses and ditzy tangents of the unscripted. Sam, who’s similar to Portman’s chatty Beautiful Girls character but with the screws loosened, is an especially likable love interest whose flaws are as readily apparent as her charms.
Also compelling is Large’s high-school friend Mark, portrayed by a dull-eyed Peter Sarsgaard as a patron saint of blue-collar desolation and quite possibly the loneliest guy in the world. Now a gravedigger still living with his haggard screw-up of a mother (Jean Smart), Mark responds to Mom’s nags about self-improvement—in the form of ordering a set of get-rich-quick-in-real-estate tapes—with, “I’m OK with being unimpressive. I sleep better” and a deep hit from his morning bong.
Braff’s weaknesses are his penchant for overstylization—do we really need a slo-mo walk through a seedy hotel lobby?—and his decision to at first underplay Large to the point of catatonia, with the character’s waking persona seemingly no different from the zoned-out version seen in an opening nightmare sequence. But Large eventually crawls out from under as he interacts with people who may be damaged but are ultimately decent, helping him move from alienation (represented by Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York”) to an understanding of love and family and life’s melancholic bliss.
Sure, the film’s existentialist message—not so subtly summarized in the line “Good luck exploring the infinite abyss”—might be faulted as being oh-so-20-something, but no matter what your age, Garden State’s unadulterated warmth is difficult to resist. Even better, Braff knows that some revelations are best writ small: His hero’s almost imperceptible turning point comes when Large positively responds to a doctor’s query if he’s all right. “Yeah, you’re all right,” the doc says. “You’re alive.”
The Inheritance also tackles life’s giant questions on a heartbreakingly intimate scale. But whereas Garden State merely teases its melodramatic subtext, this drama by Danish filmmaker Per Fly ruins its graceful portrait of marriage and family with a blood-and-thunder final act that feels like a resolution to a different movie—a sloppy American one, perhaps.
Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen) is running a successful restaurant in Stockholm and happily married to his lovely wife, Maria (Lisa Werlinder), a stage actress who has just been offered a yearlong contract. Their domestic bliss is interrupted when Christoffer’s father, the founder of a steel firm, hangs himself. Christoffer travels home to Copenhagen to bury him, but is pressured by his businesslike mother, Annelise (Ghita Nørby), to take over the struggling company in accordance with his dad’s wishes. Christoffer got out of the family business years ago because it was making him ill, but he dutifully discusses the option with Maria, who persuades him that the move would be foolish.
While announcing his father’s death to a hard-hat sea of 900 employees, however, Christoffer impulsively changes his mind, to the horror of both Maria and his brother-in-law, Ulrik (Lars Brygmann), who believed he was being groomed for the top spot.
Co-written by Fly and a trio of scripters, The Inheritance is a mostly tense and absorbing story of a man torn between his chosen life and family obligation. The second of Fly’s intended trilogy about different classes in Denmark, the movie also explores the cold machinations of corporate culture, and its characters are representations of the various temperaments that will either thrive or die in such an environment: Annelise is the calculating left-brainer who thinks that if the company is advised to lay off 100 workers, 200 heads should actually roll; Maria is all heart, believing that relationships, happiness, and compassion should take precedence before business; and Christoffer is the crisis of conscience in between, agreeing to pink-slip certain employees yet fighting to save others in an effort to at least partially reward loyalty.
Such a reward, though, isn’t in the cards for our hero. The clearest theme here is sacrifice, as it applies to both the give-and-take of relationships as well as the business world, and the tiny tragedies that result from everyday choices such as working late versus having dinner with your wife are achingly drawn. Depicted with both delicacy and power by actor and director alike, each tortured position gains the viewer’s empathy even as it causes further division within Christoffer’s family. Fly’s only faltering step is The Inheritance’s nearly Shakespearean end, which dispenses with sympathetic realism and brings on the Drama in a most unfortunate way.CP