The NBC situation dramedy Scrubs is a plucky little show that hangs on each year by a durable tether and keeps coming back for more. After three seasons, its winsome lead, Zach Braff, doesn't need to prove himself as an actor of considerable range. So during his time off, he decided to prove himself as a writer/director with Garden State, his feature film debut, in which he also stars.
This is not the sort of debut we got from Spike Lee or the Coen brothers, whose first films were significant works of art. Braff has done something the next level down: His movie, like his TV series, is smart, funny, tender and even a little wise, like a low dose of antibiotic for an indefinable something that ails you.
Braff's alter ego in Garden State is Andrew Largeman -- "Large" to his friends -- a young actor whose biggest gig to date was playing a retarded quarterback in a widely seen TV movie. He's awakened one morning in L.A. by his psychiatrist father (Ian Holm) with news that his mother has died. And so Large -- who's been on antidepressants since age 9 -- flies home to New Jersey for the funeral.
Once there, he naturally bumps into old friends, like Kenny, who lives in a mansion he bought after selling his invention (silent Velcro); or Mark (Peter Saarsgard), a scruffy dope-head gravedigger who steals jewelry from corpses, speaks Klingon, collects Desert Storm cards, and lives with his foxy mother. Large is getting headaches, and in the office of a slightly daft doctor (Ron Liebman, unusually sedate), he's seized upon by Sam (Natalie Portman), a gregarious pathological liar (she admits it) with whom he begins a life-altering romance.
In the situations that grow from this setup, only occasionally does Braff get a tad sophomoric. His movie's generous humor is dry, quick and mostly natural; its sadness is low-keyed and thoroughly sincere. Large drifts through his anxieties in an overcast Jersey haze, so you can almost believe he'd pull up to his house with the nozzle from a gas pump still stuck in his car. And while a blind woman's leader dog probably wouldn't wander away to hump someone's leg, at least Braff doesn't make it a cheap joke: The resolute dog keeps humping and humping until he's called by his unwitting owner.
As a writer, Braff explores the idea of reconciling one's past, and he nails his eccentric characters without making them bleed. As a director he's hired an impressive cast. The affably doleful Saarsgard is always fine, and in a one-scene cameo, the sublime Denis O'Hare is an antiques dealer who lives in an ark on the precipice of a bucolic urban abyss. This sort of dichotomy winnows through Garden State, which carries the faint sweet scent of autobiography, and which promises more from its incisive creator/star.