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Life-changing girlfriend and Jersey boy go to Home Depot: Natalie Portman and Zach Braff in 'Garden State'

Life-changing girlfriend and Jersey boy go to Home Depot: Natalie Portman and Zach Braff in 'Garden State'

There's so much fey, rainy day guitar pop-folk in Garden State that when the Nick Drake song finally arrives, it sounds like what every other song had been searching for at the same time that it seems totally redundant. The script, written and directed by Scrubs resident Zach Braff, behaves similarly, wandering around kinda dazed until it hits exactly the right notes way too hard. Depending on your tolerance for blurriness and/or hamfisted clarity, you may enjoy Braff's cheerfully ramshackle journey or his overstressed epiphany (or--per the Sundance buzz--both). To my mind, the last, loud metaphors offset a delicately unique melody, one that doesn't bear underlining.

Much of what's rare and sweet about Garden State has to do with the moment Braff has chosen to emphasize: a middle-twenties adult's visit to his childhood home. In this case, Andrew Largeman (Braff) flies from L.A. to a New Jersey suburb to attend his mother's funeral, but the reason doesn't much matter. (The Largeman family dynamics are less essential to this movie than Braff imagines.) At the cemetery, Andrew runs into a high school friend, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who is now a gravedigger; Mark invites him to a party, and Andrew slides into Mark's drug-laced and economically haphazard post-school existence.

Mark lives at home with his mother, who's screwing one of his old classmates. Andrew is staying "at home" with his father in their sterile, beige-modern house. (Andrew's home in L.A. looks remarkably similar.) Another friend has made a bundle selling the patent to an invention concerning Velcro; his mansion, empty but for a golf cart, provides a place to party. All these living spaces seem achingly provisional even in their familiarity; the characters are rootless and drifting, yet caught in the known comfort of their suburb.

Braff has also nailed the simultaneous ease and strain of friendships resumed after some time away from home: Mark is sensitive to comments about his cash flow and his home with Mom, while Andrew, a modestly successful TV actor who waits tables for a living, ducks the starstruck awe of his Jersey acquaintances--both of them judging the other, but not wanting to be judged. Sarsgaard, all lank hair and stubble, makes Mark's opportunism and self-loathing so indelible you can almost smell him. In the movie's schema, Mark plays Andrew's trickster-guide, but Sarsgaard has fashioned the character into something far more troubling: a person not quickly pegged.

Ditto Natalie Portman's Sam, the obligatory Life-Changing Girlfriend. Sam supposedly lies a lot, which is odd because she's so emotionally candid: Everything she feels is combusting in her face. Sam lives at home with a loving mom, an adopted brother, and lots of pets; she has a job, yet never seems to do it. Portman fills out the character with a distinct kind of ecstatic fire. Between Portman and Sarsgaard, Braff, with his TV acting chops, looks fairly flabby. Andrew has been medicated by his psychologist father since he was 10 and is choosing this moment to ditch the lithium, et al. It's a difficult character arc, because neither the audience nor Andrew knows who he'll be when he isn't numb. A better actor would engage the audience in the process; Braff tries for comically tragic and misses--meaning he eventually has to explain what Andrew is feeling, either through overtly metaphorical gesture (yelling into an "abyss") or therapy-speak dialogue ("I've been on a journey").

But before that flattened finale, Garden State (no relation to Rick Moody's first novel) delves into a world thick with funny-bitter details: the chain hardware store with its revolving door of employees; the smeared bliss of Ecstasy experienced not in fancy urban clubs, but in a suburban basement; the gray morning-after breakfast with costumed restaurant employee; and especially that emotional letdown as one enters adulthood. It's not just Andrew who's battling numbness. If Braff overstates the case for feeling, perhaps he can be excused for wanting to yell, "Wake up!"