Never having seen Scrubs, Zach Braff was a total unknown to me, making all the more impressive his debut as a film actor, writer, and director; perhaps the Woody Allen or maybe more appropriately the Albert Brooks of the next generation. Garden State, categorized by AMG as an "offbeat romantic comedy" is a terrific first effort. Braff's acting is good, his character seems flawed but likeable, his direction is good, but what really makes this movie special is Braff's writing which is constantly fresh and funny.
The only fault I can find with this picture is that the underlying plot device of having Braff's character Andrew Largeman be responsible at age 9 for an accident that left his mom a parapalegic is emotionally manipulative and somewhat derivative of a similar scenario used in 1980's Academy Award winning best picture, Ordinary People. Largeman spends the rest of his childhood and young adulthood insulated from his emotions by an array of anti-depressant medications prescribed by his psychiatrist father.
When the picture opens, his mom has just died (indirectly his fault), and he returns to his hometown in New Jersey for the funeral, having gone off all medications for the first time in life. Finally able to begin to relate, though on unsteady emotional legs, he falls for hometown girl Samantha. As Sam, Natalie Portman turns in what may be her best performance yet, simultaneously cute, funny, smart, and quirky. Peter Sarsgaard shows some nice acting range, as convincing as the slightly creepy hometown friend as he was totally believable as the editor of the New Republic who was scammed by writer Stephen Glass in Shattered Glass (2003). Ian Holm is extra creepy in the role of Largeman's dysfunctional father. It's great that despite all the psychic baggage, Graff's character utimately proves not to be too cool, too damaged, or too afraid, to give it all up for the girl.
Graff also makes great use of music with soundtrack selections that continually relate to and amplify what is happening onscreen. Anyone who has heard the Shins (thanks, J) will especially enjoy the scene in the doctor's office waiting room where Andrew asks Sam what she's listening to on her headphones and she hands him the headset saying "it will change your life." The music selections are good throughout, including a well placed Nick Drake song and a clever use of Zero 7. I really enjoyed Garden State.