Sitcom star Zach Braff wrote his first screenplay during downtime between waiting tables and his first big acting gig on television’s “Scrubs.” While “Scrubs” is pretty funny, the twisted, thoughtful comedy Braff churns out in Garden State shows he’s got better offerings for the big screen; his destiny clearly is not in slinging entrées for tips.
In addition to writing the film, Braff directs it and plays the character Andrew Largeman, a Los Angeles actor taking a cache of anti-depressants who returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. It’s his first trip home in almost a decade.
Numbed by the drugs and an icy, distant relationship with his family, Largeman feels nothing until he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a perky eccentric and habitual liar.
Sam goes through life seeking out original moments; Largeman experiences nothing authentic. Sam comes with baggage; Largeman has baggage he hasn’t opened yet. When Largeman begins to deal with his family and gets off the drugs, he begins to experience life anew.
It sounds corny, but Braff tells his story with quirky, wry and sometimes warped humor. Fine performances bolster Braff’s clever writing, including Portman in one of her finest turns, playing Sam with heart but not schmaltz.
The old friends’ characters are scene-stealers. One’s a cop, a job he declares great because “if I get shot, I’m like rich!” Another got rich after inventing silent Velcro. The best is Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a gravedigger with sticky fingers who parties like he did in the good ol’ days.
If somewhat sentimental, at least Braff’s film about people in their mid-20s is free of slapstick and the omnipresent bathroom humor that’s stinking up studio comedies of late. Thankfully, there are no over-the-top gags or puerile bits about passing gas or seeing boobies.
Garden State has drawn comparisons to The Graduate and Woody Allen flicks. That’s a bit of a stretch, but the movie is smart and funny. I just hope Braff finds some more downtime sometime soon.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main, Royal Oak. Call 248-263-2111.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.