Triple-threat outing by "Scrubs" star Zach Braff as writer-director-topliner shows rays of talent in all three departments, but tale of a young Hollywood actor trying to locate his true self during a return home to New Jersey feels too piecemeal and ultimately inconsequential to grab the public where it counts. Will attract distrib interest but yield just mild B.O. returns.

A sort of “The Graduate” lite for a generation unacquainted with the original, “Garden State” is an overly sedated comic romance with sweet little moments scattered here and there. Triple-threat outing by “Scrubs” star Zach Braff as writer-director-topliner shows rays of talent in all three departments, but tale of a young Hollywood actor trying to locate his true self during a return home to New Jersey feels too piecemeal and ultimately inconsequential to grab the public where it counts. A fine cast and shards of genuine feeling put this a cut above the average sorting-out-your-young-life pic, which will no doubt attract distrib interest but yield just mild B.O. returns.

Braff, who at 18 appeared as Woody Allen and Diane Keaton’s son in “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” certainly isn’t shy about his auteuristic aspirations and has made use of his thespian status to corral an excellent bunch of fellow actors into his low-budget directorial debut, beginning with Natalie Portman as his leading lady. The stellar performers make the characters more interesting than they probably would have been otherwise, but still can’t disguise the lack of discipline in Braff’s script, which drops any number of characters almost as soon as they’re introduced and overall seems like notes for engaging scenes that have been almost randomly stitched together rather than meaningfully interwoven to develop themes or ideas.

Coming home for the first time in nine years for his mother’s funeral, 26-year-old Andrew Largeman (Braff) avoids a dreaded confrontation with his controlling psychiatrist father, Gideon (Ian Holm), by hanging out with his old stoner friends, foremost among them the aimless Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), who are happy to welcome back a semi-celebrity to their midst. Early action is dominated by “Large,” as he is called for reasons we can only imagine, sitting zombie-like as increasingly drug-fueled party action swirls around him.

Drugs rep a major part of Large’s life, but not the recreational kind; the admittedly “numb” young man has been on heavy meds since he was a kid and, as he left them all back in Los Angeles, he’s desperate for some relief from the flash headaches he’s now experiencing. At the doc’s waiting room, Large meets cute with the irrepressible Samantha (Portman), a chatty girl whose speech is rife with irritating conventional affectations but who isn’t afraid to let her emotional needs slip out now and then.

With dead-enders, however temporarily amusing, on one side and his increasingly pathetic father on the other, there is something genuine about Sam that manages to penetrate Large’s anesthetized state, a condition that directly mirrors Benjamin Braddock’s stasis in “The Graduate.” The older woman may be missing (more’s the pity), but the sense of dissatisfaction triggering the decision to take a flier on love — right down to the nearly identical “What do we do now?” ending and recycled Simon & Garfunkel song — are right out of Mike Nichols’ 1967 picture.

Whereas Large, played in a deadpan performance that emphasizes Braff’s resemblance to Ray Romano, comes off as a collection of loosely packed, inchoate emotional impulses, Sam’s assorted neuroses prove more engaging in their specificity. Living with her mother and her casually introduced “African brother” (one of numerous promising characters who go nowhere), Sam shows Large her extensive backyard pet cemetery and freely admits her habit of lying (for no apparent reason, though, she’s introduced early on as an epileptic).

In a matter of four days, Large connects with Sam in a way that he never has with anyone before and manages to at least clear some of the air where his father is concerned.

Braff’s thesping is OK, his directing a bit better than that, but the writing leaves a good deal to be desired. An experienced collaborator could have helped considerably, both in beefing up the comedy, which consists of a few chuckles rather than many real laughs, and in strengthening the structural fabric of the entire enterprise.

Watching Portman play a quirky, idiosyncratic young woman much like one you might meet in real life reps the film’s greatest pleasure; it’s good to see her get away from overly serious roles, much less her wooden “Star Wars” straight-jacket. A heavy-lidded Sarsgaard, Denis O’Hare as an old buddy suddenly rich via his invention of silent Velcro, Jean Smart as a Mrs. Robinson to another young man, Ron Leibman as an understanding neurologist and Michael Weston as a cop who extols the sexual advantages of wearing a uniform are among the others who most prominently enliven the proceedings.

Shot on location in suburban New Jersey, film sports a pro production package.

Garden State

Production

A Miramax and Fox Searchlight release of a Camelot Pictures presentation of a Jersey Films/Double Feature Films production. Produced by Pamela Abdy, Richard Klubeck, Gary Gilbert, Dan Halsted. Executive producers, Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher. Co-producer, Bill Brown. Directed, written by Zach Braff.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Lawrence Sher; editor, Myron Kerstein; music, Chad Fisher; music supervisors, Amanda Scheer Demme, Buck Damon; production designer, Judy Becker; art director, Laura Ballinger; set decorator, Heather Loeffler; costume designer, Michael Wilkinson; sound (Dolby Digital), Ken Ishii; line producer, Ann Ruark; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Sunset screening room, West Hollywood, Jan. 8, 2004. (In Sundance Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Andrew Largeman - Zach Braff Gideon Largeman - Ian Holm Dr. Cohen - Ron Leibman Diego - Method Man Samantha - Natalie Portman Olivia - Ann Dowd Albert - Denis O'Hare Mark - Peter Sarsgaard Kenny - Michael Weston Carol - Jean Smart Tim - Jim Parsons Aunt Sylvia Largeman - Jackie Hoffman Dana - Amy Ferguson Titembay - Ato Essandoh Restaurant Manager - George C. Wolfe

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