Zach Braff's "Garden State" is a deceptively quirky take on the homecoming comedy that gradually and deftly deepens to end on a note of redemption marked by a bracing largeness of spirit and acceptance. In a confident writing and directing debut, Braff, who also stars, creates an amusing surface, spiked by occasional pathos, and then proceeds to dig way beneath it.
What begins in a modest, even familiar way becomes deeply personal, and Braff, best known as Dr. John "J.D." Dorian on TV's "Scrubs," takes his characters, their values and emotions to levels of understanding and insight that are impossible to foresee at the film's outset. "Garden State" illuminates a young man's overdue coming of age with unexpected depth and grace.
A phone call awakens Braff's Andrew Largeman from a dream in which he is frozen in terror -- or is it an impenetrable calm? -- aboard a plane shaken by severe and ominous turbulence. The call is from his father Gideon (Ian Holm), a New Jersey psychiatrist, telling him that his mother has died and that he must come home. Andrew is a 26-year-old actor living in Los Angeles. He supports himself as a waiter in an upscale Vietnamese restaurant but has enough credits to justify hanging in for that breakthrough role.
In the film's first significantly revealing image Andrew closes a door on a large medicine chest filled with prescription medicine. Later on he will admit he has been on lithium since tragedy struck his family when he was 9. This return home, his first in nearly a decade, triggers in him a desire to discover whether he can cope with life without the protective numbing of medication. It is clear at the outset that the chasm separating father and son is far greater than the geographical distance.
Not surprisingly, Andrew initially dodges his father on his planned four-day visit, and Braff makes this work for his story: Andrew's comical encounters with old friends and classmates divert attention from the film's quietly emerging seriousness. Andrew first catches up with Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a witty, intellectual gravedigger who may still live at home but is determinedly his own person -- and who is ultimately capable of a gesture of crucial influence.
Andrew's pal Jesse (Armando Riesco) has invented a "silent" form of Velcro that has turned him into a millionaire party animal. Other friends and classmates include a former cokehead turned traffic cop and a big-box store clerk caught up in a pyramid scheme. However, Andrew's most important encounter will not be with someone from his past but with someone he has never met before, the free-spirited Samantha (Natalie Portman).
Like his old acquaintances Samantha has her idiosyncrasies, and she and her family in fact verge on the cutesy-kooky. Yet as the film progresses it is increasingly possible to see everyone through Andrew's initial disdain.
What he begins to see are people unafraid to be themselves and to take life as it comes, regardless of however well they succeed or fail or what impression they make on others. Braff, as impressive in front of the camera as behind it, creates for "Garden State" an entirely original and offbeat climactic sequence that is an epiphany.
In a sterling ensemble cast of more than 30 actors, including very notably Ron Leibman as a level-headed neurologist, Ian Holm offers a formidable foil to Braff.
Once again Portman is a beguiling charmer, and the multifaceted Sarsgaard very nearly steals the movie. "Garden State's" lack of pretense makes it all the more rewarding.
MPAA rating: R for language, drug use and a scene of sexuality
Times guidelines: Complex adult themes and situations
Zach Braff...Andrew Largeman
Ian Holm...Gideon Largeman
Ron Leibman...Dr. Cohen
A Fox Searchlight Pictures, Miramax Films and Camelot Pictures presentation of a Jersey Films/Double Feature Films presentation. Writer-director Zach Braff. Producers Pamela Abdy, Richard Klubeck, Gary Gilbert, Dan Halsted. Executive producers Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher. Cinematographer Lawrence Sher. Editor Myron Kerstein. Music Chad Fischer. Costumes Michael Wilkinson. Production designer Judy Becker. Art director Laura Ballinger. Set decorator Heather Loeffler. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
At selected theaters.