Garden State

Starring Zach Braff and Natalie Portman. Rated R.

Every era gets its own coming-of-age movies. It takes a while to see which hormonal fiestas will join The Graduate as generation-defining and which will go the way of EuroTrip, but it is safe to say that Garden State will have some genuine meaning for the average 26-year-old meandering through a world that has never been more confused--perhaps even more so for 26-year-olds who happen to be stuck in the part of the world known as New Jersey.

The wanderer in question here (he's initially too passive to be called a hero, exactly) is one Andrew Largeman, a moderately successful actor who abruptly leaves L.A. to attend his mother's funeral. The actor is played by the instantly likable Zach Braff (of the cult show Scrubs), who also wrote and directed the film, and New Jersey is played by Ontario, which takes more work to warm up to. Largeman's largest part so far has been as a "retarded quarterback" in a cornball movie of the week, and his reward for that role is to find himself in a corner of the USA where most people think that what they see on TV is real.

Andrew isn't mentally challenged, however; he's just overly medicated and paralyzed by inner conflicts. His father (Ian Holm), it turns out, is also his psychiatrist, and a steady diet of Lithium and other mood stabilizers has rendered him unable to do little more than utter other people's lines. So when he washes up where people have known him since childhood, Largeman finds it hard to answer generic questions like "What's up?" without calling his agent.

Of course, it doesn't help when your childhood friends include a kid who has already retired, thanks to a profitable patent, and a gravedigger (memorably played by Peter Sarsgaard) who traffics in dead people's jewellery. Andrew gets a jolt out of sub-Springsteen territory when he meets Sam (Natalie Portman, in her most playful role since the similarly toned Beautiful Girls), a local girl ably coping with epilepsy.

One of the film's few real missteps is to introduce Sam's disability and do nothing with it--especially since it offers an opportunity to comment, in some way, on Andrew's neurological problems. Similarly, the Holm character remains undeveloped while presented as the linchpin to our protagonist's problems. And let's not even get into the would-be surrealism of a hotel-basement scene that appears to have been lifted from a movie that never should have been made.

As a filmmaker, Braff is himself only partially formed, but the talents he displays here are compellingly original. Garden State works, and works well, based on its flow of surprising juxtapositions and mood swings, aided by witty dialogue, disorienting camera work, and just-right, guitar-driven music taken from several epochs. By the way, who (besides Mrs. Robinson) thought Paul Simon would ever sound this hip again?