This may make me some sort of traitor to my generation, but I found Garden State—the auteur debut of TV star Zach Braff (Scrubs)—to be a derivative vanity project. Self-conciously quirky and slathered with the director's favorite pop music, Garden State isn't original, thoughtful, interesting, or endearing enough to banish the notion that Braff may well have designed the whole thing to hang out with Ian Holm, Peter Sarsgaard, and Method Man and to make out with Natalie Portman. To the contrary, I'm confident that Braff's effort is earnest, just overly so. While appropriating mood (that of Hal Ashby, failingly) or image (like Dustin Hoffman's dead man's float from The Graduate), Braff drowns in his own affection for films I would gladly watch for an umpteenth time before bothering with Garden State again.
Ironically, writer-director-star Braff plays a man who awakens to the realization that he's attracted to doing "something completely unique that's never been done before." A sad sack whose psychiatrist father (Holm) has kept him medicated since the tragic paralysis of Andrew's mother, Andrew "Large" Largeman drifts around in a sedated haze (he's been known to drive off with a gas-station nozzle still in his tank). When Andrew's mother dies, the L.A. actor-waiter goes home to the Garden State: New Jersey. He hooks back up with an underachiever pal (Sarsgaard), who explains, "I'm okay with being unimpressive. I sleep better," and defends his investment in Desert Storm trading cards.
Andrew slowly comes out of his coma to pitch Gen-X woo with a peppy Portman. Portman's free-spirited Sam meets Andrew "cute" as a seeing-eye dog humps his leg, then tools around with him on his motorbike-sidecar ride. If those sorts of randomly silly bits float your boat, you'll enjoy the character who works as a Medieval Times knight and unaccountably wears his costume home, or the fat funeral singer who delivers "Three Times a Lady" in a thick local dialect. Braff only pulls off this sort of gag when it's purely visual, like an oddly mounted diploma in a doctor's office and a shirt made from leftover wallpaper, enabling Braff to momentarily disappear into a wall. Those two jokes are quite lonely, with most of the movie maudlin or too precious by half.
The point, of course, is for "Large" to get his second wind in life: it's a carpe diem flick. Finally, the shapeless narrative pulls lumberingly into some big scenes: a mythic visit to a grounded ark which culminates in the poster image of Braff, Portman, and Sarsgaard sounding their barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world, and a flat reckoning between father and son. Braff might have done better to devise a more energetic bookend to his character's dead-eyed stirrings, but the director at least benefits from lively supporting performances by the fetching Portman and a sharp-edged Sarsgaard.
I can understand why hungry young audiences will fall for Garden State: they'll recognize the sad, cold longeurs of their own lives and their warm hopes of smiting them with love and adventurousness. I begrudge no one of this catharsis but only explain: for me, Braff's transparent design made lessons feel like platitudes, jokes feel like bombs. In the end, only my butt could relate to Andrew's numbness; at picture's end, I was ready to get up and go for all the wrong reasons.