Go into a screening of Garden State in a sour mood, and you may find it an easy movie to hate. In his first outing as director/writer/star, Zach Braff (TV's Scrubs) falls hook, line and sinker for the nü-indie fallacy that telling a story means piling on quirk after quirk. Only when its underlying sincerity finally overwhelms its affectedness does the film deserve the accolades with which it's been so indiscriminately met.
Any movie that starts with a plane-crash fantasy is on tacky ground to begin with, and Garden State follows that boner with a litany of outlandish conceits, including: a Jewish matron honking "Three Times a Lady" at a funeral; an armchair inventor who's struck it rich by inventing "silent Velcro"; and an enormous ark situated in the midst of a muddy quarry. The silliness quotient reaches its high-water mark when antihero Andrew Largeman (Braff) sits down to breakfast with his buddy, Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) a druggie gravedigger (!) and two other people, one of whom is fresh off a shift at a Medieval Times-like restaurant and is thus decked out in a suit of armor. Braff the writer is so tickled by the situation and the ensuing glib repartee (his entire movie consists of folks saying fascinatingly witty things to one another) that entire minutes go by before he deigns to tell us who half these people are.
Behind the overreaching drollery hides a slip of a narrative. Largeman, a New Jersey native long since relocated to California, is summoned back home by the death of his mother, who drowned in the family bathtub. While he observes the traditions of grieving, the perennially medicated "Large" revisits old friendships and renews his polite enmity with his glacial father (Ian Holm). He also manages to make a new friend in Sam (Natalie Portman), a suburban free spirit who cajoles Large into loosening up. When she first notices him, he's having his leg humped by a seeing-eye dog. Contrived enough for ya yet?
To say that Portman sounds unconvincing mouthing the words "man" and "right on" merely begins to describe a portrayal that's as deeply felt as an Edie Brickell CD. But just as Sam's obnoxious acting-out has you eyeing the exits for real, the movie which has thus far maintained an uneasy balance between wacky comedy and ennui takes an unexpected turn for the poignant. Braff clearly loves these characters, and his enthusiasm for them ultimately carries the day. It's not down to anything written or performed, but in terms of vibe, Large's Jersey journey of closure ends up thumb-hitching its way to the emotional interstate and not a moment too soon.