Starring Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, with Jackie Hoffman, Jean Smart, Ron Leibman and Denis O’Hare
Written and directed by Zach Braff
Rated R; 109 minutes
Natalie Portman should keep Zach Braff on her Christmas card list for a long time, because chief among the pleasures of Garden State, Braff’s writer-director debut, is a lovely, pleasure-providing performance by Portman. She has escaped from the pounds of makeup and costumes and the leaden direction she shoulders as Queen Amidala in Star Snores, George Lucas’ three-box insomnia cure. Portman returns Braff’s favor by vivifying a somewhat clichéd character in a movie whose budget probably could have been covered by any three CGI shots from The Phantom Menace.
Braff does favors for a number of strong actors, including himself, in this small-scale, enjoyably offbeat film. Like other actors-turned-directors (Braff is a key part of the comic ensemble on TV’s underrated sitcom “Scrubs”), he is adept at bringing out both the wit and the joy of performing in other actors. His sensitive direction showcases a cast that includes veterans like Jean Smart and Ron Leibman; scene-stealing theater actors like Jackie Hoffman (Broadway’s Hairspray) and Denis O’Hare (Assassins on Broadway, The Anniversary Party on film, and several excellent “Law and Order” episodes); and relative newcomers (the excellent Peter Sarsgaard and, in a one-scene bit, Michael Weston, the psychopath who tortured poor David Fisher in a harrowing episode of “Six Feet Under.”) Weston plays the kind of amiable screw-up all of us knew in high school, the kind of overeager, none-too-bright person you pray doesn’t get a job requiring him to make life-or-death decisions. Of course, in this film, as so often happens in life, he’s a cop.
Braff plays Andrew Largeman, an emotionally anesthetized young man who returns to New Jersey from a stalled Hollywood career for his mother’s funeral. This twentysomething guy has been on antidepressants and mood stabilizers since before puberty, all prescribed by his caring yet creepy psychiatrist dad (Ian Holm). But “Large,” as his friends call him, accidentally on purpose leaves the meds back in L.A., precipitating a slow, painful climb back to consciousness, pain and happiness. Of course, there are also painful family secrets and a long-delayed confrontation with his controlling father to be dealt with along the way.
Portman’s character, a chronic liar with an odd home life, could have been the stereotypical kooky-girl-with-hidden-problems, but the actress brings real conviction to her portrayal. In many ways she’s more interesting (certainly more lively) than the numbed Largeman, and it’s a measure of Braff’s savvy as a director that he gives Portman so much space and freedom. Of course, it also helps him as both actor and director, since her interest in him focuses our attention on his progress. I saw Portman in the title role of The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway several years ago, and she more than held her own with a cast of heavyweight pros. She has the stuff if careful directors will bring it out.
Even if there’s a little too much of the indie film coming-of-age blueprint in Braff’s plot, his direction brings out the humor and humanity of people making simple connections. My main criticism is that Braff succumbs to the temptation of over-resolving his hero’s problems. After watching Largeman, with Portman’s help, take tiny steps toward life throughout the four days or so that the film covers, his decisiveness at the end feels forced. A little ambiguity would have added some needed sharpness to the sweet ending. But even if Garden State cheats a little, it doesn’t leave you feeling cheated.