GARDEN STATE written and directed by Zach Braff, produced by Gary Gilbert, Dan Halsted, Pamela Abdy and Richard Klubeck, with Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm and Method Man. 109 minutes. A Fox Searchlight release. Opens Friday (August 6). Rating: NNN
The Shrug Against Love is one of the great movie gestures, and every romantic comedy depends on it. Lovers in movies must first reject romance before it addles them in the second act. It's the law. When Zach Braff meets Natalie Portman in Garden State, we know what's coming. It's a love story, and they're the leads. But they're each so wilfully indifferent - so sheathed in their own quirks - that it seems like we're watching two movies about oddballs rather than the set-up for sparks.
That's a credit to Braff. Garden State, which he also wrote and directed, gets off to a shockingly smart start. He plays Andrew Largeman, a Don McKellar type returning to New Jersey to bury his mother. His psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) has kept him floating on lithium since he was 10, and Braff adds a slight pharmaceutical delay to the typical disaffection of his tribe. It's intoxicating.
Largeman returns to Jersey a Hollywood star, or at least a minor one. As one of his old friends asks, "Didn't you play the retarded quarterback? Are you really retarded? If there was some kind of retarded Oscar, you would win hands down."
It's a lonely homecoming, and then he meets Portman. Against all the laws of the genre, Garden State manages to make their first encounter genuinely surprising. The film deglams her, which helps. Even better, it offers up ringing little echoes of her famous scenes opposite Timothy Hutton in Beautiful Girls. Here she's a brainy epileptic with character spikes that point in every direction.
So far Garden State is thrilling. It's got the wit of an Alexander Payne or Wes Anderson movie, and it's just as sure-footed in tone. The music choices are impeccable, for instance, and never cued too early. There are two sight gags as precise and hilarious as anything in Jacques Tati, and they both depend on Braff's patient-dog reaction.
Even if Garden State reaches for comparisons to The Graduate as Largeman makes his way through town, it earns it.
At least early on. Once that second act rolls into the third, Braff's tonal taste deserts him. What was a fresh, strange romance growing between his character and Portman's swerves into sentiment. What first looked like an insider's view of how white kids in their 20s think and feel shrinks to a more and more insular perspective. Once characters start talking about "the infinite abyss," even in jest, an opportunity has been lost.
Garden State gives all its wisdom to Largeman. Holm, playing his father, comes off as oblivious, if not actually evil.
This is what marks Braff's debut - and limits it - as the film of a young man. For all the early strength of its point of view, it's unable to extend much insight beyond Largeman himself. It shows little if any understanding of parents. Sons don't, in fact, have all the wisdom, and it takes a large man to admit it.