Picks and Pans Review: Garden State

updated 08/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Zach Braff, Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard
COMEDY

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Having reluctantly returned to his suburban New Jersey hometown for his mother's burial after her suicide, a young Hollywood actor finds himself adrift in the detritus of his past. Andrew Largeman (Braff, who also wrote and directed) is numb; he doesn't want to feel anything and, thanks to the prescribed pharmaceuticals he has been gulping since he was a youth, he hasn't for years. Now, among old friends and haunts, he goes cold turkey and starts to find out what it feels like to feel.

The appealing story of a melancholy young man finding himself, Garden State echoes The Graduate (right down to the inclusion of a Simon & Garfunkel song on the soundtrack) without slavishly imitating it. Shot in a largely deadpan style and featuring a talented cast, the film makes most of its comic points with a light touch, though it falters slightly in the end when it overreaches for meaning. (Hint to filmmaker: Next time go easy on mentions of the "infinite abyss.")

Triple-threat Braff, a regular on TV's Scrubs, moves up on Hollywood's most-promising list with this entry. His performance is moving, while his direction shows an eye for the telling moment. He gives his actors room without letting them overdo it. Portman, as Largeman's new girlfriend, is a likable live wire, and Sarsgaard—is this guy ever bad?—is aces as an underachieving buddy. (R)

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