Best known for his role as a retarded quarterback, anhedonic actor-waiter Andrew “Large” Largeman (Zach Braff) comes home to New Jersey for his mom’s funeral. Why hasn’t he spoken to his folks in nine years—and what’s with all the mood stabilizers? Among the virtues of Garden State, Braff’s triple-threat debut, is its patient way with information. The tragic backstory gets filled in gradually, and the slow reveal feels accurate rather than merely suspenseful. Then there are the goofier, permanent gaps: Coming to after an evening of detached debauchery, Large finds “BALLS” inexplicably magic-markered on his forehead.
Stormy twentysomething emotions seethe under a deft quirkfest: A boyhood pal gets rich off his noiseless-Velcro patent; a diploma that won’t fit on a doctor’s wall of fame gets tacked to the ceiling. Amid the absurdity, Largeman finds good-hearted pathological liar Sam (Natalie Portman, endearingly wiggly now that she’s free of intergalactic cosmetic conceits). Anytime Sam feels ordinary, she makes an odd noise coupled with a bizarre gesture, to mark the moment as unrepeatable and thus historic. The dynamic between gabby gal and withdrawn swain recalls Winslet and Carrey’s eternal sunshine, but the chemistry is more thuddingly sweet here—call it the mid-twenties vs. early forties cuteness quotient (hereinafter, MTVEFCQ). Early on, Sam claps her headphones onto Largeman’s ears so that the Shins can fill the soundtrack—a scene so out-of-nowhere moving, you wish they could stay like that till the last possible measure. When Large tries to shield her from disturbing shenanigans in a peep-show hotel, Sam retorts, “I’m not innocent.” But she is, to him, and as soon as Sam grasps this, she announces in mock triumph, “He was protecting me—he likes me!”
A hazy quest materializes, led by an old buddy–turned-gravedigger (Peter Sarsgaard). Braff’s conceits get stranger, less joke-based; Largeman doesn’t know what they’re seeking, and this unexpected narrative freedom is a welcome, if tone-shifting, jolt. Garden State‘s home stretch overindulges in the cathartic talkathon that’s been brewing all movie long. But Braff’s naive romanticism is also lovely proof of the film’s innocent heart. Ehh . . . Lovely? Innocent? OK, so maybe no one over the age of 18 will buy the high-hope ending. But I am protecting it. I like it!