As J.D., the bedpan-emptying intern on NBC's "Scrubs," Zach Braff has been displaying some of the best comic reflexes in the business. He can drive to the left or the right, do a quick fade and sink a basket before you even realize he has the ball. And he can stop on a dime, turn serious while you're still responding to the joke he just made. For better or worse, J.D. doesn't make an appearance in Garden State, Braff's debut as a writer and director for the big screen. The character he plays, Andrew Largeman, is like J.D. after a lifetime's intake of lithium. Andrew's had a bit of success in L.A. as an actor-slash-waiter. Then his mother's death brings him back to suburban New Jersey, where the need for antidepressants began. But maybe it'll be different this time. Maybe Andrew's chance encounter with Sam (Natalie Portman), a brainy yet zany Jerseyite who has some psychological problems of her own, will help him face his past, live in the present, get on with his life or at least adjust his meds.
Caught in a funk, Garden State looks for the silver lining in gray clouds, the glints of absurdist humor, as when a seeing-eye dog humps Andrew's leg in a doctor's waiting room. And although Braff slathers on the quirkiness -- one of Andrew's friends digs graves, another made a fortune off a silent-Velcro patent -- he pulls it off, capturing the way that life, especially when you're in your 20s, can veer from free-floating to free-falling. Portman may not have the craziness inside her to play a woman whose eccentricities will seem less charming year after year, and you keep wishing Braff would cut loose, flex his "Scrubs" muscle. But he's made a fine funny-sad movie that bears comparison to the movies it tips its hat to, 1967's The Graduate and 1971's Harold and Maude. Perhaps, 30 years from now, Garden State itself will serve as a touchstone for twentysomethings who'll be just fine when and if they ever make it to 30.