Zach Braff, writer/director/star of the uneven but occasionally appealing comedy "Garden State," has clearly seen "The Graduate" a few times — he's a Benjamin Braddock for the new millennium. Like Dustin Hoffman's character in Mike Nichols' 1967 classic, he plays a blank-faced young man who returns to his parents' home after a long absence, eyeing once-familiar faces and places with a kind of bewildered distance. A passive observer of life around him, he finally finds love with a radiantly beautiful young woman, while Simon & Garfunkel music plays in the background.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to cast yourself as the star of your very first movie, but Braff (best known for his role on TV's "Scrubs") clearly has confidence to burn. His movie is sweet-natured and skillful, but its biggest problem is perhaps one Braff wasn't prepared to deal with: his own performance — or, more accurately, the decision to place a deliberately flat performance at the film's heart.
A slightly puffy-faced young man who resembles the young John Ritter, Braff plays Andrew Largeman (known to his friends as Large) as a blank slate. This isn't an out-of-the-blue actor's choice — Large, a semi-successful TV actor who returns home to New Jersey for his mother's funeral, has been self-medicating with prescription drugs for years. Though his character is taking a vacation from the pills during his visit, Braff's performance has a sleepy vagueness to it. He's neither likable nor disagreeable; he's just there.
It makes sense that Large would behave this way; but why should we care? He's an empty young man who spends the movie observing the quirks of those around him, with moody pop tunes on the soundtrack taking the place of a truly nuanced performance. (The pop-music trick is common practice for young filmmakers, particularly Wes Anderson, but Braff should note that "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" would probably work just fine without their soundtracks — the actors, and the directing, are good enough that we know exactly what the characters are feeling, without needing an audio hint.)
Nonetheless, Braff is a talent to watch, and he's got a sure hand with his strong supporting cast, particularly Ian Holm as Large's ghostlike dad, Peter Sarsgaard as his gravedigging pal Mark, and Jean Smart as Mark's loving pothead mother. Natalie Portman, as the free-spirited girl who opens Large's heart, is so exquisite that she's almost a distraction — she's got the beauty of an old-time movie star, like a young Vivien Leigh, and the movie occasionally gets lost in the curves of her face. Her performance is problematic — she's a tad over-directed here, playing a character whose extra-quirkiness is meant to make up for Large's blankness — but she scoots by on winsome charm.
Braff, still in his 20s, has plenty of time to develop as a director and an actor. "Garden State" is a good start, though not a great one; let's check back with him in a couple of years.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com