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By Tim Merrill | August 2, 2004

“Garden State” is an exciting debut for a young man mainly known as the star of a glib medical sitcom. Written and directed by Zach Braff (he’s on the NBC hit “Scrubs”), this definitely ain’t no sitcom, though at times the film is a shade too quirky-cutesy for its own good. And while Braff’s script may suffer from long-windedness, his direction – of both cast and camera – is so confident that this debut could well mark the start of a major career.

Braff himself plays Andrew Largeman, who is first witnessed experiencing a plane crash. A disconcerting way to begin a movie, to be sure, though of course it’s only a dream. The reality Andrew wakes up to isn’t much better, though – depression, heavy medication and the news that his mother died the night before. To make matters worse, Andrew – an actor of some kind – waits tables in a trendy L.A. Vietnamese restaurant, and must wear eyeliner while doing so.

Back in New Jersey, Andrew runs into a high school buddy at his mother’s funeral – he’s a gravedigger now (played by the fantastic Peter Sarsgaard). Now somewhat reconnected to his past, the zombified Andrew floats along like a 21st-century Benjamin Braddock in a post-9/11 world of forced fun and even a druggy spin-the-bottle party. The “Graduate” comparison is also apt because of Braff’s percocious mastery of widescreen visual puns, and gracefully interwoven melancholy folk-pop by the likes of The Shins, Nick Drake and yes, even good old Simon & Garfunkel.

So that’s Andrew’s dislocated life. He’s 26, he hasn’t been home for nine years, and he can’t relate to his father (Ian Holm), his friends, anyone. He can’t even grieve for his mother. Just when “Garden State” threatens to dissolve into a plotless quirkathon, in comes The Girl to perk things up, in the fine form of Natalie Portman (who, between this and her ferocious work in “Cold Mountain” has made up for that whole Queen Amidala thing).

Portman’s Sam is a talky, funky local lass who instantly recognizes the pain in Andrew, and makes it her mission to draw him out. In short order, she brings him home to meet her mom and brother (an African immigrant, long story) and check out the world’s largest Habitrail, complete with dead hamster. The burial of said hamster is Andrew and Sam’s first real bonding experience, and it makes for a touching scene that sends the film in a new, more heartfelt direction. Portman’s young Diane Keaton mannerisms give way to a more nurturing, comforting side; it suits her. And sure enough, Andrew begins to open up, about how long he’s been on medication, why he’s on medication, and most importantly the series of sad events leading up to his mother’s death.

The chemistry between Braff and Portman and their characters goes a long way, saving the film when it takes a few too many bizarre plot/location turns and overplays its dramatic hand towards the finish, especially as concerns Andrew having a long-delayed “deep and meaningful” with his dad. Effusive emotional outbursts aren’t the film’s best style. But when Braff keeps the tears and the kookiness in check, he takes us into some unusual, interesting areas of the human psyche. And makes us laugh a good deal while he’s at it.

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