Garden State
dirs. Braff
Opens Fri Aug 13
Various Theaters

Managing a rare balance of accessibility and depth, Garden State marks a promising debut from filmmaker Zach Braff. Braff (from NBC's sitcom Scrubs) has crafted a picture that has a predictable plot and sentimental leanings, yet still proves pretty funny--no small feat, especially considering that Braff wrote, directed, and stars (not to mention Garden State is his first directing gig).

Braff plays Andrew "Large" Largeman, a struggling L.A. actor who returns to his New Jersey home for his paraplegic mother's funeral. Large's less than cheery homecoming is also marked by less than cheery interactions with his father (Ian Holm), who blames him for his mother's suffering. Enter Sam (Natalie Portman), a compulsive liar who lives with her mother and a house full of hamsters. Sam is carefree, beautiful, charming as hell, and just what Large needs--so of course they meet, hit it off, and you can probably figure out the rest.

There are definitely some holes in Braff's writing and directing, but he's lucky enough to have a great cast to help fill them. Holm, as Large's psychiatrist father, Gideon, gives the suburban doctor a depth that's definitely not in the script. Peter Sarsgaard, as Large's friend Mark, fleshes out the character so well that the audience always remains sympathetic to him--even when he's literally stealing from the dead.

Braff and Portman are good, too, but they also could have benefited from a more experienced director. The two have excellent chemistry, yet they're left too much to their own devices--making overly simplistic choices for their characters (Braff plays the confused and grieving Large as discomfort incarnate, while the sometimes ridiculously charismatic Portman goes the opposite direction). Their performances aren't bad; they're just not nearly as strong as they could be.

However, Garden State's solid enough overall for one to look past its flaws (the uneven script, the inconsistent directorial tone) and simply enjoy the story and the characters. Braff's accomplishments with Garden State are difficult things to achieve as a filmmaker--especially the first time out.