-By Ethan Alter

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Most films about angst-ridden twentysomethings are directed to look as gritty and as 'real' as their protagonists. Employing an extensive amount of handheld camerawork and/or grainy digital-video images, the minds behind these movies (who are often angsty twentysomethings themselves) strive to celebrate their characters' individuality by making films that all look the same. If nothing else, Zach Braff's Garden State deserves praise for bringing formalism back to a genre that increasingly prizes a more amateurish approach. The first-time writer-director, whose day job is playing the lead on NBC's stellar sitcom "Scrubs," cites Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen and Hal Ashby as influences, and you can see traces of all three directors in the film's visual style. Like Kubrick, Braff favors meticulously composed frames that are alternately packed with detail or make striking use of negative space. He also shares Allen's penchant for long takes with little camera movement and Ashby's deadpan approach to comedy. It would be a mistake, though, to dismiss Braff as a talented mimic. He may wear his influences on his sleeve (the guy did spend four years in film school after all), but Garden State has a loopy charm that's all its own.

The plot is textbook Young Adult Anomie 101. Braff plays Andrew 'Large' Largeman, a modestly successful TV actor who reluctantly returns home to New Jersey after a nine-year absence to attend his mom's funeral. While trying to avoid spending time with his estranged father (Ian Holm), Large reconnects with some old school pals, including Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), a slacker who has embarked on a promising career as a gravedigger (and sometime grave-robber). He also makes a new friend, Sam (Natalie Portman), a pretty young woman with a thousand eccentricities. Soon, Large and Sam are spending virtually every moment together, but their various neuroses (he's spent most of his life on lithium and blames himself for his mom's death, she's got epilepsy and is something of a pathological liar) hold them back from making the leap to full coupledom. As Large's departure date for Los Angeles approaches, he finds himself faced with what's become known as the Benjamin Braddock Conundrum: Take some initiative and drastically change your life or sit back and continue to let time pass you by.

The success of Garden State rests largely on Braff's stylish direction and the actors' strong performances, rather than the script. In his effort to capture his generation's voice onscreen, Braff occasionally overreaches and comes up with dialogue that is too on-the-nose or obviously calculated to provoke sighs of understanding from all the under-30 viewers in the audience. Still, he has written some great scenes, including Large's surreal breakfast at Mark's house the morning after an all-night party and a touching conversation about death in Sam's backyard pet cemetery. These moments capture the right mixture of the bizarre and the mundane that the movie aims for throughout. But the majority of Braff's attention is devoted to his directorial duties and it shows in the film's beautifully composed images. There are shots here you find yourself wanting to frame and hang on your wall. (Not surprisingly, the press notes reveal that Braff is also an avid photographer.) It's rare to see a young filmmaker display this much confidence behind the camera, especially on a first feature. Braff puts an equal amount of thought into the soundtrack; drawing on a wide assortment of indie rock bands such as The Shins and Frou Frou, he makes the music a character in the film just as Mike Nichols did in The Graduate. (He even makes a direct nod to that landmark film at one point, scoring an entire scene to the Simon & Garfunkel chestnut, "The Only Living Boy in New York.")

As an actor, meanwhile, Braff acquits himself nicely. Large is essentially the movie's straight man, but the role gives him the chance to show some dramatic chops he doesn't always have the opportunity to use on "Scrubs." Braff also shares a believable chemistry with Portman, who initially seems miscast as Sam. Perhaps it's leftover residue from the Star Wars movies, but the actress carries an air of regalness that's at odds with her character's quirky nature. As the film progresses, though, Portman steadily eases into Sam's idiosyncrasies and, in fact, does some of her best work in the final half-hour. Of the supporting roles, Sarsgaard's sleepy-eyed charisma comes in handy once again, while Holm dominates every scene he appears in, which, sadly, is far too few. Overall, Garden State is a strong debut feature from a promising new director. Every summer movie season needs an offbeat love story and Braff's film neatly fills that niche for 2004.

-Ethan Alter

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