While not exactly the most horrifying words in the English language, hearing an actor say, “I really want to direct, and I’ve got my own script,” come pretty close. And when that film is a coming-of-age story disguised as a quirky romance with more than a few references to The Graduate, you’ve got what looks like a recipe for disaster. Against all odds, Garden State skirts nimbly past most—but not all—of the potholes in its path, and comes out the other side a flawed but funny and heartfelt film that says: maybe you can go home again—even if that means coming back to Jersey.
Droopy-voiced Scrubs star Zach Braff plays Andrew Largeman, a struggling Hollywood actor who’s had one decent role and is now waiting tables, hoping something will turn up. Not so much a slacker as a lithium-soaked zombie, Andrew somehow drags himself onto a flight back home to attend his mother’s funeral. There, he gets back in touch with his old friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), avoids any communication with his control freak psychiatrist of a father (Ian Holm) and sparks up a halting relationship with Sam (Natalie Portman), an adorable little thing with a slight seizure problem.
Braff, who also wrote and directed the film, predictably litters the screen with quirky objects and characters. Even though many of these oddball diversions are genuinely and surprisingly funny, they serve mostly to remind us that there is little forward momentum here. Andrew rides around in an old army motorcycle (Sam in the sidecar, seizure-protecting helmet on), a guy shoots flaming arrows into the air just so he can duck them when they come back down, Mark’s mother’s boyfriend (who works at a medieval-themed restaurant) wears his armor around the house, and so on. Between this and Braff’s background in photography—which results in plenty of artfully-built still shots that serve no purpose but to be admired—Garden State at times can seem too much of a precious thing: a languorous, Gen-X take on The Graduate with less sex and an incongruous cameo by Method Man.
Fortunately, Braff doesn’t try to wrap everything up with a pretty bow and ribbon at the end, and also sticks himself between two of the better actors working today: Sarsgaard (creepy and sleepy-eyed) and Portman (finally wresting herself away from the ingenue prison of her early career). Even though their characters exist mostly to pull Andrew in one direction or another (Mark to the dark side of underemployment and light criminal activity, and Sam to romantic fulfillment), the actors’ subtly-tuned performances still manage to leave an indelible mark. A quiet and small film, to be sure, but a debut that nevertheless should not be ignored.