Before filming Garden State, Zach Braff gave Natalie Portman a copy of Harold and Maude—”one of my favorite movies of all time,” he told Charlie Rose. In Hal Ashby’s 1971 odd-couple comedy, Ruth Gordon played a mischievous, vivacious septuagenarian who awakens a suicidal teen to the possibilities of love and life. Fast-talking, free-spirit Sam, played by Portman, might as well be “Maude Jr.,” the actress told Entertainment Weekly; she “has the same effect” on Andrew Largeman, played with saucer-eyed innocence by Braff.
Braff wants his film—which, like Harold and Maude, darts from graveyards to mansions with deliberate, art-school cinematography over a languid soundtrack—to be both an indie and Hollywood hit. It winds up in the middling ground between.
Everything that is simple and effective about Harold and Maude is overdone and muddled in Garden State. The causes of Harold’s depression are never quite obvious, but seem to be as much about society as his individual psyche; Andrew, on the other hand, has a faltering acting career, a paraplegic mother who drowned in the bathtub, and a psychiatrist father who’s fed him a whole cabinet of drugs since age 10, for reasons too contrived to disclose. About a half hour into Garden State, Sam turns to Andrew, and asks, “So you’re, like, really Jewish?” as though she just moved to New Jersey. Andrew says the Jews he knows only go to synagogue for Yom Kippur, but the movie’s not really about atonement either. Compare that to the moment in Harold and Maude when the camera zooms in on Maude’s arm just long enough to reveal a numbered tattoo, followed, with equal grace, by a reference to Alfred Dreyfus watching the seagulls on Devil’s Island. The Holocaust is never discussed, only suggested, earning the film’s final gravitas while grounding Maude’s character.