Garden State

Zach Braff’s appeal on “Scrubs,” the NBC series he leads, is his ability to underplay the comedy, to appear befuddled and intimidated as madness surrounds him. Even when performing wacky, silly comedy, he doesn’t seem wacky himself.

This same sublime sensibility permeates “Garden State,” the magnificent film he wrote and directed and in which he stars. As Andrew Largeman, a New Jersey native who moved to L.A. to be an actor nine years ago and who comes home now only for his mother’s funeral, Braff is indeed surrounded by lunacy, and he indeed reacts with calm perplexedness, as if he resigned himself long ago to the fact that he would have friends who work at Medieval Times and thus wear knight’s armor at the breakfast table.

Andrew reunites with his old high school buddies Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and Dave (Alex Burns) because they happen to be operating the tractor that digs his mother’s grave. (These are not men who determined to make something of themselves in the business world; these are men who smoke pot all the time.) He also reunites, awkwardly, with his father (Ian Holm), with whom he has unresolved issues going back at least since he was 10, when we are told he first began being medicated for various psychological reasons.

And he meets Sam (Natalie Portman), a compulsive liar with more energy than she knows what to do with and a mother with a thousand housepets. Andrew and Sam have much in common, most notably their damaged families and their damaged methods of dealing with them.

Braff’s brilliance as a writer, director and performer is made manifest in the film’s ability to be both hilarious and poignant, often in the same scene. It is full of deliciously underplayed sight gags — a doctor has so many diplomas on his wall that he ran out of space and started putting them on the ceiling, for example — as well as large doses of truth and beauty, all accompanied by a stellar cool-kid rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack (The Shins, Colin Hay, Postal Service, Frou Frou, etc.).

I saw the film at Sundance and liked it a lot without loving it. I thought it got a little too jokey, and that it went on a distracting detour near the end, plot-wise. Having seen it a second time, I see now that I was wrong. The jokes are endearing, funny and clever, and that “detour” is in fact thematically quite relevant. I don’t know how I missed it the first time, but I’m glad I had a chance to redeem myself before it was released theatrically.

The film captures the feeling of post-college, pre-marriage, mid-20s disorientation so masterfully that it belongs in the same category as “The Graduate,” which did the same thing for the same demographic 35 years ago. It speaks to the confused, lonely people of Braff’s over-medicated, over-analyzed generation more clearly and more piercingly than any other film has done so far. He is great, Natalie Portman is radiant and exuberant, and the movie’s sweet story of love and cluelessness puts it up there as one of the year’s best.

A- (1 hr., 42 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some drug use, brief nudity and strong sexuality.)