In Garden State, a likable if flawed comedy that seemed to set younger audiences on fire at Sundance this year, Zach Braff, who also wrote and directed, plays Andrew Largeman, a Los Angeles television actor who's achieved moderate success despite the fact he's been stoned on lithium since he was a boy. Large, as he's called, comes home to New Jersey for the first time in nine years to attend the funeral of his mother, who has committed suicide, and he spends most of his time hanging out with old high school pals, in part to keep out of the way of his distant father (Ian Holm, improbable in a yarmulke). The movie signs on for the hoary old Hollywood maxim that authenticity lurks everywhere that is not LA, an idea as beguiling as it is a wishful crock. Mercifully, Braff, who grew up in New Jersey, is not sentimental about what authenticity might mean as it applies to Large's dead-end friends, among them a callow lad employed as a knight in a medieval fast-food restaurant; another who's a shill for pyramid schemes; and Large's best friend, Mark, a gravedigger played with characteristically potent understatement by Peter Sarsgaard.
Star of the oddball NBC sitcom Scrubs, Braff is bright and has a quick ear for vernacular dialogue, and he's caught the look and the sound of his blitzed, prematurely disillusioned generation, which has had to live with more lack of definition than most. Large's friends still live with their parents and throw parties where they smoke dope, pop pills and play a sexed-up variant of spin-the-bottle, and though they hover perilously close to being sitcom types and their creator is a tad liberal with the sight gags, Braff stops short of turning them into clowns. They're living their lives, and the one who's asleep is Large, even after he has taken himself off lithium.
It's around this wake-up call that the movie founders. Nothing if not well-connected, Braff snagged Natalie Portman to play his love interest, Sam, a motor-mouthed flake, sunny existentialist and occasionally harmless liar whose life is as full of energy and color as Large's is gray and empty and who draws out of him the revelations that will set him free. Portman does her best, but this giddy ditz, who might more profitably have been played by Hilary Duff, belongs in the kind of prattling teen movie to which Braff clearly means to give a wide berth. Garden State has some great performances, notably from Jean Smart as Mark's pothead mother, and a wealth of nicely observed anecdotal bits. By rights, the movie should end with a tough-minded, wholly original scene near the end, in which Large says what he needs to say to his bewildered father, and in doing so refreshes the whole meaning of what it means to mend fences with your parents. Instead, it goes out all sugared-up and weepy, like a movie of the week whose casting director really lucked out.
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GARDEN STATE WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY ZACH BRAFF; PRODUCED BY PAMELA ABDY, RICHARD KLUBECK, GARY GILBERT AND DAN HALSTED; AND STARS BRAFF, PETER SARSGAARD AND NATALIE PORTMAN. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS UNIVERSITY, IRVINE.