Garden State

Andrew Largeman (Braff) is a struggling Los Angeles actor living in a zombified state due to anti-depressants and his icy family (Ian Holm), who reside back in New Jersey. When news comes to Largeman that his disabled mother has drowned, he returns to his home state for the funeral, reconnecting with his mostly deadbeat friends (including Peter Sarsgaard) along the way. Experiencing his first weekend of a chemical-free life since he was a child, Largeman stumbles into the world of Sam (Portman), a young epileptic, who helps Largeman confront his feelings toward his family and himself.

“Garden State” marks the debut of writer/director Braff, better known as the lead character J.D. on the hit NBC show, “Scrubs.” A film school graduate, and now an actor with serious Hollywood connections, Braff unleashes his first film on the world. A tale of guilt, romance, and a thinly veiled look at the life of an actor who returns to his childhood home, “Garden State” is the quintessential “first film” from a young director: it’s packed to the gills with overreaching themes and relentless style.

Because the film is such a hodgepodge of rhythms and aesthetics, “State” isn’t the searing portrait of dreary New Jersey rebirth quite as Braff imagines it. The film is entertaining, occasionally roaringly funny, and often poignant with Largeman’s arc of trying to come to terms with his mother’s death. But Braff the writer is trying way too hard to make impression, through some pretty ambitious plotting, attempting to scrape together quirky sights and sounds to the New Jersey world that haven’t been put on film before. One sequence, set between the walls of a hotel where men pay money to watch (through peepholes) the sex acts that go on in the rooms is greatly indicative of the material where Braff derails himself. Largeman’s story floats away while Braff works out his quirky itch and “State” loses dramatic integrity, which was threadbare to begin with.

Braff the director also gets in over his head through the abundant use of style. “State” is the distant cousin of the Hal Ashby/Wes Anderson school of highly controlled visual poetry, which Braff takes very seriously. “State” is a beautifully shot film (by Lawrence Sher), but Braff often tosses in needless tricks (including slo-mo for little reason or effect) and visual symbolisms to induce interest in the confused story, which accomplishes very little. “State” is a fairly scattershot film, and Braff’s over-reliance on style only exacerbates this problem.

Where Braff excels is in his evocation of the stilted lives of Largeman’s friends, as they circle the bottom of the barrel through heavy drug use and questionable moral choices. You can literally feel the weight of these dark lives during the movie, as well as the tight bond explored between Largeman and Sam. Braff does great work getting these two characters together in way that isn’t overtly quirky or unbelievable. Braff also manages to reclaim Portman’s charisma, which was effectively buried by George Lucas’s “Star Wars” films. A cheerful, funny, deeply felt performance as the troubled Sam, Portman is superb in a way that hasn’t been seen since her loose childhood performances in “The Professional” and “Beautiful Girls” (a film that “State” shares similar themes with).

If “Garden State” is imperfect is a multitude of ways, it’s so with a heart and desire for individualism that is completely endearing. Braff has exorcized his filmmaking demons here, and now, hopefully settling down, we could be seeing the birth of a great filmmaker.

Rating: B