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Stellar cast highlights touching dramatic comedy

Chris Kepner | Monday, November 8, 2004

To Zach Braff, star of TV’s “Scrubs,” “Garden State” is a first stab at writing and directing a feature film. This may seem like a hasty leap to some, but after seeing the quality of the result you’re sure to join the rest of us in anxious anticipation of his next effort.As if writing and directing wasn’t enough, Braff chose to star as Andrew “Large” Largeman, the film’s protagonist. Living in Hollywood, Largeman is one of thousands of hopeful head shots working dead-end jobs, accepting roles in any bottom-feeding drek that might get them noticed, and smiling through clenched teeth as they assure everyone back home in Anywhere Else, U.S.A. that “things are great out here.” Largeman’s dead-end job is in a Vietnamese restaurant that doesn’t serve bread, impersonating a Vietnamese waiter. His best role to date is the retarded quarterback who may not have led his high school team to victory, but certainly taught them a lesson about courage. And his Anywhere Else, U.S.A. is New Jersey, the “Garden State.”Largeman is returning home for the first time in nine years in order to attend his mother’s funeral. He uses the trip as an opportunity to stop taking the drugs prescribed by his psychologist father that have left him almost numb to emotion since he was a kid. Largeman’s four-day homecoming thus becomes the subject of this coming-of-age film.Largeman’s old friends and acquaintances seem to remember him pretty well considering they haven’t seen him since he was sent off to boarding school at the age of 17. Ignoring this weakness in the story is easy to do though. This is also necessary to appreciate his relationships with these people, especially his best friend Mark.Natalie Portman shines as Sam, the epileptic girl that becomes Largeman’s love interest after he meets her while getting checked out at a clinic for headaches he’s been having. Don’t be misled by her condition though, as there is never so much as the slightest hint that she will have a seizure during the course of the film. “Why does an epileptic always have to have a seizure? I just wanted to have an epileptic character in my movie without the pretense that she might have one,” said Braff during a question and answer session at the London Film Festival. One of the most enjoyable parts of “Garden State” is the soundtrack, which is composed of music hand-picked by Braff himself. When he was handing out copies of the screenplay to studios, he included a mix CD with songs from bands like Coldplay, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Shins, the very songs that now set the mood of the film.Go into this film expecting to laugh, as it is soaked through with Braff’s great sense of humor. Its certainly been made fun of before (think “Cable Guy”), but a shot is taken at Medieval Times here that should have you in stitches.In a time when most films need a huge budget to make waves in the box office, “Garden State” was made for a mere $2.5 million. But the price tag is certainly no measure of the value of this film. While the comparisons to “The Graduate” are a stretch, as even Braff will admit, “Garden State” is a touching story that will not even think about leaving you disappointed.