Having been one of the best things in offbeat US hospital comedy 'Scrubs', Zach Braff makes the logical transition to movie acting. But while the desire to front a feature film is understandable, the fact that Braff wrote and directed Garden State never having tried his hand at either discipline smacks of wild ambition and/or rampant egotism. Rather than the emetic vanity project some feared, Braff's film is in fact a wonderfully understated film about the complexities of life and love, and the bizarre delights of New Jersey, the Garden State of the title.
Andrew Largeman (Braff) is a troubled young man. A depressive whose life as an actor in LA is made possible by liberal doses of lithium, Large hasn't returned home to New Jersey in almost a decade. With the death of his mother bringing an end to this era of isolation, he finds himself forced to confront his quietly domineering father Gideon (Holm) and ingratiate himself with long-lost friends. On the plus side, he also encounters Sam (Portman) a gorgeous epileptic who threatens to reacquaint Large with happiness, love and all the other things he has forgotten.
With its combination of twentysomething angst, middle class milieu and all-powerful parents, it's simple to spy similarities between Garden State and Mike Nichols' The Graduate. But instead of just revelling in their common territory, Braff forces the connection between the two pictures by including Simon & Garfunkel on the soundtrack. It's an unfortunate decision because, whatever its many qualities, Garden State lacks the generation-defining punch of Nichols' classic. While The Graduate called for rebellion (albeit in its politest form), the more intimate Garden State is dedicated to celebrating idiosyncrasy, almost to the point of sentimentality. (New Jersey seems entirely populated by eccentrics). And as one would expect from a first-time writer-director, Braff doesn't have Nichols' assured touch, though he does pull off the odd nice directorial flourish.
If he's a little suspect technically, Braff handles his actors with great maturity for someone still under 30. Of course, it helps when you're able to hire the likes of Natalie Portman and Ian Holm to appear in your debut picture, but Braff makes sure that both play to their strengths, with Portman bringing her timeless sex appeal to Sam, and Holm making Gideon superbly gruff but also surprisingly sympathetic. Braff also coaxes a great performance from Peter Sarsgaard (Shattered Glass) who cements his reputation as one of the most skilled young actors currently at work.
Braff himself is very good as the sensitive, laconic Large. Yes, the role feels a tad underwritten but one can appreciate that a young writer-director might not want to be seen to dominate proceedings both in front and behind the camera. If it's disappointing that Large is sometimes a supporting player in his story - and sad that Braff's default setting seems to be cliché - it's a rare delight to encounter a writer with a real knack for dialogue. As one would expect given his 'Scrubs' background, the gags are excellent, and it's when Braff's characters simply sit and chat that everything in the Garden State is very lovely indeed.