Numb in New Jersey

Natalie Portman and Zach Braff reprise the theme from The Graduate, in a 21st-century exploration of anomie and apathy in suburbia.

Love trumps lithium in a 20-something wasteland

If Zach Braff, who was born in New Jersey in 1975, had been alive in 1967, he might have competed with Dustin Hoffman for the role of affectless graduate Benjamin Braddock. In Garden State, Braff plays Andrew Largeman, another alienated 20-something slacker whose existence is accompanied by mellow acoustic music, including a song by Simon and Garfunkel. Thirty-seven years after Benjamin, disrupting a wedding and abducting the bride, tried to redeem his vapid life through love, Andrew attempts the same. A remake of The Graduate for the age of lithium, Garden State is the comic tale of a wasted young man who finds himself by finding the right woman.

For its first hour, the film offers up drolly inventive variations on the familiar theme of middle-class anomie. A would-be actor whose only notable performance was a TV appearance as a retarded quarterback, Andrew waits tables in a Vietnamese restaurant where obnoxious patrons insist on eating bread. Nine years after leaving New Jersey, he is summoned home from Los Angeles to deal with his mother's bathtub drowning. A gravedigger at her consummately tacky funeral turns out to be an old friend named Mark (Sarsgaard), whose principal interest seems to be smoking dope and collecting Desert Storm trading cards. Only one member of Andrew's high school cohort has accomplished anything, inventing silent Velcro, but he is now very rich and very bored. The only reason that Andrew himself has avoided full-on depression is that since the age of 10 he has been devouring daily sedatives prescribed by a psychiatrist, his own father (Holm). During the four days covered by the film, Andrew and Gideon Largeman stare at each other in long, plangent silences.

One of the rules of romantic comedy is that the lovers "meet cute." Andrew first encounters Samantha (Portman), a perky, quirky epileptic who is Holly Golightly gone a bit lite, in a doctor's waiting room; a seeing-eye dog abandons its master and begins having sex with Andrew's leg. Andrew and Sam do not begin having sex with each other until late in the film, but their convergence transforms Andrew. For the first time since a bizarre childhood trauma, he can forgo lithium and allow himself to feel.

Garden State

Writ.-dir. Zach Braff; feat. Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Ian Holm, Peter Sarsgaard (R)
Sam describes Howard, a man who lives in a land-bound boat that squats beside a very deep quarry as "guardian of an infinite abyss," and the phrase might apply to all of us, including and especially the filmmaker. A lively low-budget production by a gifted upstart auteur, Garden State is, nevertheless, for all its brash independence, an exercise in conventional sentimentality. It proclaims that love conquers all, even a lifetime of anesthesia.

More than just the dismal industrial corridor beside New York City, New Jersey can aptly call itself "the Garden State." Though far from Edenic while close to Passaic, the shell-shocked state that Andrew inhabits mocks the movie's title. The clever shticks that Braff sticks in almost every frame until the facile ending announce an irreverent spirit that flouts the pieties of his chosen genre. A doctor's office is so cluttered with diplomas and plaques that they stretch above the walls and onto the ceiling. A dude named Tim goes off to work wearing armor, the uniform at a fast-food franchise called "Medieval Times." Andrew is stopped for speeding by a spacy traffic cop, childhood friend Kenny, who took the job because, "I couldn't think of anything better to do." Braff will surely think of better things to do with his abundant talent, but Garden State is a flourishing start. •