'Scrubs' star shines in 'Garden State'

by Lindsay Barnes | 8/24/04 5:00am

Autobiography in film has always been a tricky business. Having the director also write and star in an autobiographical film is even more dangerous. And more perilous still is having a first time director write and star in an autobiographical film. There exists an immense possibility of plummeting into the abyss of bad films made by otherwise talented people.

There will be no great fall for Zach Braff.

Best known for his work as the lively, wisecracking Dr. J.D. Dorian on television's "Scrubs," Braff took to heart the greatest "Inside the Actor's Studio" clich answer ("Well, James, I've always wanted to direct!"). He got on the other side of the camera with the intent of making a movie about his home state of New Jersey. Then he casted himself in a part that hit close to home but was also completely different from his television character. The chance of disaster was great, but somehow Braff managed to avoid all the possible pitfalls and create a film that is poignant without being sentimental, honest without being self-indulgent and smart without being arrogant.

"Garden State" is the best first film to come around in a long time.

Braff plays Andrew Largeman, an actor who achieved a degree of fame after starring in a made-for-TV movie about a mentally challenged quarterback. He now finds himself resigned to taking orders and plenty more from Hollywood's elite at a Vietnamese restaurant. When the news comes from his estranged father that his mother has passed away, "Large" must return home to New Jersey for the first time in nine years.

It isn't quite the prodigal son coming home when Large goes back to his old stomping grounds. The interaction with his father (Ian Holm) ranges between tenuous and tepid. His friends are more or less the same, not treating him any differently in spite of his flash of fame or their varied experiences since last seeing him. One became a cop, but he's still the same goofy, mischievous kid. One became a multimillionaire from the sale of his "silent Velcro" patent, but he still sits around and does essentially nothing.

Just as it appears nothing much is going to come of this little trip, Large meets Sam (played by Natalie Portman in the performance of her career) at the hospital while he waits to literally have his head examined. After recognizing him from TV and asking him if he's actually retarded she goes on to introduce him to the music of The Shins, encourages him to kick the German shepherd humping his leg in the groin and refuses to ride in the sidecar of his motorcycle when he offers her a ride home. She's someone utterly unlike Large's sedate self and helps him open up about that which has been festering in his head and heart for too long.

Above all else, "Garden State" is a wonderful piece of storytelling. It's a story told in a similar style to David Lynch's 1999 gem "The Straight Story." All we know at that film's opening is that Alvin Straight has to go visit his brother. All we know at "Garden State's" opening is that Andrew Largeman has to go visit his father. And as was the case with Alvin, the audience learns gradually more and more about Large's past and why he is who he is as the narrative slowly unfolds. The result in both cases is a film that pulls the viewer in as the film takes its time to tell the story. It's no small feat and praise for Braff is in order for that.

But this film wouldn't be nearly what it is without the great performance from Portman. Hot on the heels of her small but powerful role in "Cold Mountain," Portman becomes a character different from any other she's played before. In much the same way that Kate Winslet played "the Jim Carrey role" in this year's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," Portman makes a 180 from the characters she normally plays. A young actress known for portraying heroines who are graceful in suffering, in this movie Portman plays Sam, a girl who is anything but graceful. Sam is an emotional and physical klutz with quirks galore, a big heart and a fragile ego; Portman pulls it off beautifully without overdoing it. I sincerely hope she's not forgotten come Oscar time.

While "Garden State" isn't a perfect movie (the ending leaves too many frayed ends untied) it is a movie with heart and wit to spare and makes for a fresh and interesting answer to the age-old question of "Can you go home again?" Whether or not that's true for Large is up for the viewer to decide, but there's no doubt that the success of this look at his home state makes it a resounding "yes" for Braff.