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Braff and the World Braffs With You: Zach Braff (here with Natalie Portman) directed, wrote and stars in the quirky 'Garden State.'

Escape From Naboo

Natalie Portman shines in Zach Braff's shoegazer epic 'Garden State'

By Richard von Busack

Today, his mother is dead. Or maybe yesterday, he doesn't know. He got a call from home: "Andrew, this is your father. Funeral tomorrow." That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.

In Garden State, Andrew Largeman (played by Zach Braff, the film's writer/director) flies back to New Jersey, taking leave from his dolorous and overmedicated life in Los Angeles. Andrew had been trying to eke out a living as an actor, which mostly meant waiting on the tables of rich obnoxious people. How Andrew feels about the death of his mother is, essentially, no feeling whatsoever. He's been on lithium since he was 10. Like Camus' Mersault in The Stranger, the death of his mother causes not a ripple in him.

After the funeral, the hulking, dead-faced "Large" (as he is known) tries to avoid his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm), who longs to have a heart-to-heart with his son. But this dialogue gets postponed while Large reconnects with his old pot-smoking chums. Drugs act as a stasis field. And his suburban buddies are living more or less exactly as they were when he left nine years ago.

Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) is particularly sarcastic. Though he's glad to see his old friend back, he's also slightly resentful of Large's success in Hollywood. By "success," he means Large's performance in what sounds like a painful movie about a mentally challenged quarterback, which had the double whammy of typecasting Large as a mentally challenged type onscreen and depressing him further.

When refilling a prescription at the hospital, Large runs into Little, so to speak. She's a sweet-faced oddball girl named Sam (Natalie Portman), who's sitting around listening to the Shins on a pair of oversized vintage headphones. They encounter each other in a 2004 version of a "meet-cute"; her dog sexually assaults his leg, and that breaks the ice. This slip of a girl is just the right size to fit in the sidecar of his motorcycle, but the relationship it doesn't go all that fast.

This summerweight romance, with its seriously droll writing, is all about scenes. Braff is an actor turned director, so the movie is full of delicious tidbits loosely connected. An example: Largeman waking up, graffitied upon, after a night of serious druggage. Some fellow partier wrote the word "Balls" on his chest with indelible ink while he was asleep. Not quite awake yet, he sees a man in full suit of armor fixing himself some breakfast.

The film's most rabid fans will be the young, walking wounded. The adults in this film are hopeless eccentrics or power wielders. Large and Sam, overgrown children, are the innocents in this Garden State of Eden, with various sinners trying to tempt them out.

Portman's Sam is kind of a child. She has her little graveyard of hamsters, and she preserves the scraps of her childhood security blanket. She has a taste for telling harmless fibs, a touch of illness and a bit of sadness.

Shoegazer movies like this can curdle fast. Some will feel that the curdling occurs right at the end. Large's backstory is a credulity stretcher, involving the hand of happenstance: I mean that one little incident, when he gave his mother a shove, an incident that all but ruined his life. The will-he-or-won't-he at the airport—a derivation of the final scene of The Graduate—has been done a thousand times.

Yet Braff makes the jungly summer in New Jersey look as verdant as a week in Costa Rica. Braff's Large is as richly anhedonic as the comedian Steven Wright. And the use of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy in New York" is properly exhilarating in the moment where Large's self-made chains slip away. That big moment takes place right after the three main characters visit some strangers who are contentedly married, kind to one another—evidence that not every family has to be maddening.

When Natalie Portman debuted in Beautiful Girls, she attracted what were, I hope, chaste love letters on the Internet from writers who were, I further hope, also 14 years old. Since then Portman's career has been full of promise and not much delivery. This despite a memorable small part in Cold Mountain and a well-known stretch in Lucasland, coated with makeup and surrounded by robots.

These are circumstances that immobilize an actress as if she were in a full-body cast. In Garden State, Portman breaks through her own prettiness, particularly at the airport scene when her huge eyes go liquid. At the point when she cries, Portman decided not to be demure. She wins the moment through uncomposed, unlovely weeping—and cracks all the male hearts in the audience.

Garden State (R; 106 min.), directed and written by Zach Braff, photographed by photographed by Lawrence Shur and starring Braff and Natalie Portman, opens Friday at the Del Mar in Santa Cruz.

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From the August 11-18, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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