Garden State

Amusingly quirky it is.

Like the parkway of the same name in New Jersey, "Garden State" is not as pretty as it sounds, not as much fun as a semi-stoner film could be, but it gets you to where director/writer/star Zach Braff (TV's "Scrubbs") wants you to be--in a funky state of awareness that our purpose in life is to accept who we are and love when possible. Andrew Largeman (Braff), like his obvious counterpart Benjamin from "The Graduate," is lost in L.A. as a would-be-actor (He did play a retarded quarterback for a cable-TV movie) and waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant. As in Benjamin's case, most people are willing to give him advice, mostly about his limitations, but his considerable medication demands, from his psychiatrist father, kept him from focusing and being aggressive.

Returning to the Garden State for his mother's funeral, Andrew meets his former life in the form of slacker high-school buddies and a father accusing him of crippling his mother. Until he meets Sam (Natalie Portman, "Cold Mountain") nothing here makes sense either. Then she releases, as Elaine did for Benjamin, feelings and insights foreign to him before this. Sam is a free spirit with an out-there family, all of this just a bit too contrived to be authentic quirky, but amusingly quirky it is.

When Andrew, Sam, and gravedigger friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard, "Shattered Glass") visit an ark at the bottom of a quarry or deal with a rich buddy who invented "silent Velcro," I was reminded of Harold visiting Maude's railroad car in "Harold and Maude," another cult oldie aimed at renewing our love of life's oddities and life itself.

Director Braff laces the film with references to death such as the burial of Sam's gerbil, and, of course his mother but manages to keep the tone light, for example, when Andrew and friends smoke weed and play spin the bottle. That admixture makes "Garden State" enjoyable and manipulative at the same time. Hearing Simon and Garfunkel on the soundtrack confirmed my suspicion that Andrew would ultimately rebel, if not just from himself. Like Benjamin, he would like his life to be "different." Braff successfully underlines the difference, which promises an interesting future for his protagonist. Benjamin does not hold the same promise. As Wordsworth said, " Like,--but oh how different."