Zach Braff: Our generation’s John Ritter?
Maybe he’s having an off day, but, when Zach Braff calls to chat about his new film The Last Kiss, he sounds a lot more like his Garden State protagonist Andrew Largeman — soft-spoken, melancholic, and unfunny — than the loud, high-spirited, and always-hilarious Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian he plays on NBC’s Scrubs. The disparity is made even more evident by the fact that Braff is calling from the set of Scrubs, where he’s just begun filming the show’s sixth season (and possibly last, if his “gut” is right).

On the other hand, this quiet demeanor highlights just how good Braff is at what he does. Not only has he mastered such physical-comedy stock as the Chevy Chase pratfall and the spit-take, but he’s made an art of the understated delivery and can, depending on what’s required of him, infuse humor or angst — or even a quirky cocktail of the two — into any line and make it look absolutely effortless. No one has got around to calling him his generation’s next anything, but the truth of the matter is he is his generation’s John Ritter and, very likely, his generation’s Bill Murray. Except, of course, he won’t have to wait until he’s 50 to be taken seriously.

His most recent big-screen foray, The Last Kiss, is (if you don’t count the animated Chicken Little) his first film since 2004’s Garden State — a film he not only starred in, but also wrote, directed, assembled a soundtrack for, and, oh yeah, made out with Natalie Portman in. This time around, he has to contend with two women who want him: Rachel Bilson of The OC, and Real World alumna Jacinda Barrett. The latter he’s knocked up, while the former wants to help him turn his back on growing up, on responsibility, and on obligation.

The film is about choices; about four male friends faced with the prospect of turning 30; about mid-life crises after only three decades of living. Written by Paul Haggis (the douche who brought us Crash and the Million Dollar Baby script), it’s all a little absurd, to be honest. Like Haggis loves to do, he underestimates his audience’s intellect, and coddles us as if we were retarded children. But, hey, the performances are great and, if anything, it proves that Braff can convincingly play an unsympathetic asshole.

It also serves as a thematic sequel of sorts to Garden State, which Braff attributes, in part, to Paramount’s marketing campaign.

Garden State was about being confused and lost and depressed in your mid-20s,” he explains. “The Last Kiss is a movie about a guy who actually has everything going right for him. He’s happy and in love, has a great job, and things are going well. He’s just a little terrified of saying goodbye to the freedom of his 20s, you know, and graduating to that next age when responsibility and accountability are more important.”

Braff, who celebrated his 30th birthday a year ago, contends that he’s still the same guy he was when Scrubs launched. “But I definitely feel like you can’t fool around,” he concedes. “You’re definitely an adult. There’s no denying it any longer. I definitely feel a responsibility to different people in my life, and I want to marry and have kids one day. I think I can definitely relate to the character in that way.”

The Last Kiss became something of a family affair for Braff, too, as he recruited many in his “core group of friends” to work with him, including fellow Northwestern University alumni Michael Weston (his co-star in Garden State and Last Kiss) and musical artists Cary Brothers (who appeared on both of those soundtracks) and Joshua Radin (who appears on the latest). Braff attributes his musical know-how to Brothers and Radin. “I know less about music than the average person,” he says. This, of course, coming from a guy who won a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack.

“There are plenty of bands you’d be shocked I’ve never listened to,” he insists. “I don’t have an iPod with 20,000 songs on it, or anything like that. I just have music that I like, and I think if I’m good at anything, it’s being able to pick the right songs to put to a picture.

“It’s not like I know who the new hot band is that’s coming out,” he adds. “I’ve got a bunch of friends who are musicians, and they’re always sharing music and talking music. Now I have this blog on my own site and on Myspace, where people recommend music to me all the time. So it sort of snowballs and feeds itself.”

Kind of like Braff’s career. Even if Scrubs does end this year, one has to imagine that the success he’s set in motion will perpetuate itself long after he’s said goodbye to the small screen.
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