Melancholy Baby

Zach Braff and Natalie Portman in Braff's new movie, Garden State.

When filmmakers talk about making a “generational film”—and 29-year-old Zach Braff talks just that way—what they’re really talking about is curating a soundtrack: the harmonic melancholy of Simon and Garfunkel in The Graduate, the up-tempo pop in The Breakfast Club, or the anthemic, boom-box art rock in the late-eighties touchstone Say Anything. So it’s not surprising that in Braff’s Garden State, when prodigal son Large (Braff) meets his love interest, Sam (Natalie Portman), the first thing she does is hand him her headphones.

“You gotta hear this one song,” Sam tells him. “It’ll change your life.” For the next twenty seconds, we get Portman smiling at Braff while he listens to “New Slang,” an acoustic confection by the Shins with the lyrics “Turn me back into the pet I was when we met / I was happier then with no mind-set.” It’s a risky, listening-booth moment, since if you think the song is weak, you’re going to check out of Braff’s movie. Right. About. Now. But if you buy it—and given the Shins’ melodic sweet tooth, it’s hard not to—Braff is betting that the soundtrack is going to carry you the rest of the way, from flirtation through misunderstanding (Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First”), all the way to tearful airport reconciliation (Frou Frou’s “Let Go”).

“With Garden State, I wanted to make a film that wasn’t cynical, that took the temperature of what it was like to be a twentysomething and a little bit lost,” Braff says with an earnestness that defies pretension, over a sushi lunch at the Mercer Hotel. “Like what Say Anything and Harold and Maude were for me.”

Of course, you want to be suspicious of such sincerity, especially coming from a filmmaker best known for spit-takes and gurney pratfalls on the medical sitcom Scrubs. But while the film may have its moments of bathos, Garden State is finally admirable for its brazen vulnerability: It’s Braff’s genuine attempt to make an unashamedly personal movie about coming of age in suburbia.

“The film’s journey leads straight to the unmedicated male breakdown—when Sam catches Large’s first tear in a paper cup.”

At its best, the film captures the meditative surrealism of twentysomething angst, via unhurried, carefully composed visual riffs—like Large’s walking past a bank of automatic faucets in Newark airport and setting them off, one by one, or solemnly examining the pharmacological superstore in his medicine cabinet. The movie mixes slapstick commercial appeal and loftier ambitions; for every carefully composed frame of Large’s dissolution, there’s one dog-masturbation joke. And if Braff’s metaphysics sometimes seem more gestural than considered, the film keeps winning you over. His screenwriting and directorial debut is the equivalent of a mix tape, the kind that would fit into the genre labeled emo, short for “emotional,” music generally recognizable for its searching, confessional qualities—willfully unironic, and trying hard for soulfulness.

Braff is a bit emo himself. He really wants you to feel something; these songs are, after all, supposed to change your life. “These were the songs I was listening to while I was making the film,” he says, “and I just loved all of them.” Braff supersaturates his debut in the yearning, arpeggioed soundtrack of Iron & Wine, Remy Zero, even Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” at the crescendoed kiss. (“I never thought we’d get it, but I just told them their music scored my childhood,” Braff says about appealing to the duo for the rights. “They watched a clip and said yes.”)

Braff’s lightly autobiographical film follows the return of Large, a young aspiring actor in L.A. and Zoloft zombie, to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. As he reacclimates, he kicks his meds, angles for reconciliation with his father (Ian Holm), and falls for Sam, a quirky, many-layered local. In the era of drug-induced stability, the journey of Garden State leads toward the unmedicated male breakdown—when Sam catches Large’s first tear in a paper cup.

This is one of the many moments in the movie that waver right between melodrama and admirable emotional risk. Not only is he crying for the first time since his mother died, but Large is doing it in the bathtub where she drowned. But Garden State’s sincerity would be cloying if Braff hadn’t gotten some tips on tone from his three years on television. He keeps the film buoyant with a steady stream of self-deprecation (like balls written on his forehead after a night of partying), absurd cutaways, and disbelief splashed across his wide face. “What I learned from Bill Lawrence, the creator of Scrubs, was that as anything gets too heavy, you turn it on its head and you have a release,” Braff says.

By any measure, Braff has played his last three years well. In January 2001, Braff, then 25, was working as a waiter at the posh Le Colonial in Beverly Hills, struggling to get cast and teetering on what he would call, with only trace elements of sarcasm, “the infinite abyss.” “I was depressed,” he says. “I thought maybe I’d come out from New York too early, that my agents weren’t powerful enough, that I was over my head.” His biggest breaks were in the past, as a punky gym rat in The Broken Hearts Club, Woody Allen’s son in Manhattan Murder Mystery, and the cross-dressing hero of a CBS After School Special called My Summer as a Girl. (“Yes, I Naired,” he says.) He was about to come back to South Orange, New Jersey, where he’d grown up, when his agent told him to go through one more pilot season before packing up. The first part he auditioned for was as hapless medical resident J.D. on Scrubs.

“It was like the Olympics,” Braff says. “You’ve auditioned five times, and then you go in for the ‘network test,’ and there were 35 people crammed in a room to judge you, and if you don’t nail it, you’re done.” His agent called him ten minutes after he left. “I was screaming in my Nissan 240SX,” he says. “Then I called my parents and then called Le Colonial and quit.” Except the show’s producers then said they wouldn’t start shooting for another three months.

During this unexpected downtime, he sat down and wrote Garden State, then called Large’s Ark for a tenuous biblical resonance in the plot (mercifully trimmed). He based several plot elements on his own life: like Braff, the main character is famous at home for an embarrassing early role, as the “retarded quarterback” in a successful TV drama. Afterward, “everyone and their grandmother passed on it,” he says. Two years later, a producer named Gary Gilbert, who had made money in the home-mortgage business and was looking to get into film, told Braff, “Get the budget down to $2.5 million, and I’ll write you the check myself.” Braff did, and he shot around northern New Jersey in the summer of 2003, during his March–August filming hiatus.

Without distribution, the moody romance went to Sundance looking for a buyer, and Braff crashed with Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Large’s childhood friend in the film, and Sarsgaard’s girlfriend, Maggie Gyllenhaal. In a show of Jersey pride, Senator Jon Corzine flew in for the premiere. After the screening, Fox Searchlight and Miramax, in an unprecedented collaboration, offered $5 million to jointly release the film, the biggest bid of this year’s festival.

“That was definitely the craziest week of my life,” says Braff. “We were at dinner, and our cell phones rang, and the producers said, ‘This deal is going down now.’ So we all just stood up, left the restaurant, and went to this tiny little ski house. We negotiated until 4 a.m. with a guy on a laptop typing up the contract. As a filmmaker, it was exactly what you fantasize about: people actually wanting your movie.”

“Nine out of ten people just fly into Newark and say ‘Ugh, Jersey.’ It’s so unfair. It’s a beautiful place.”

Look for the source of the movie’s heartache—the troubled, poorly adjusted parts of Braff—and mostly what you’ll find is that familiar-enough Jersey trauma, the divorce of his parents when he was 8. But even in that case, he had therapy from all sides. His mother is a psychologist, remarried to a psychologist, and his stepmother is a therapist. (His father, the one holdout, is a lawyer.) The youngest of four, Braff attended Columbia High School (with Lauryn Hill) in Maplewood, the sister town to South Orange, where his father still lives.

Just twenty minutes from the city by train, South Orange, like West Orange, is one of the tonier ends of Jersey’s New York bedrooms, unlike Orange and East Orange, which Braff calls “a little sketchy.” But the close proximity to decaying, edgier exurbia deepened Braff’s appreciation of class distinctions in the so-called monoculture of Jersey, one of the most refreshing qualities of Garden State. “I grew up upper-middle class, but I had some friends who grew up lower income and blue collar,” he says. “So I would go to their houses, and, yeah, the pleather couch was ripped and there might have been a towel in the window and the TV had static on it, but it was the most cozy, homey house I’d ever been in.” All his close friends still live in Jersey. “One friend owns a meat distribution company, the other distributes wine, another one is a physical therapist.”

This class mixing isn’t what most outsiders think of when they think of Jersey—they imagine, primarily, exits 13 to 16 off the Turnpike, what Braff calls the “Chile sucks” problem. “In high school, a bunch of my friends and I flew down to South America, and when we landed at the airport in Santiago, Chile, it was pouring rain outside,” he says. “One of my friends looked out the window and just said, ‘Chile sucks.’ When I hear people talk about Jersey, I always think about that. Nine out of ten people just fly into Newark airport and say, ‘Ugh, Jersey.’ It’s so unfair. It’s a beautiful place to live, and I’m proud to be from there.”

But the true character test of a North Jersey childhood is just what kind of New York you understood as a teenager. Braff, who hit Washington Square or Central Park with friends, got his Manhattan exposure via his dad, who loved to take him to musicals and films. “He’s a lawyer, but Barbra Streisand, Yentl, are tops to him,” says Braff. “I have a really early memory of him bringing me in to the city to see The Gods Must Be Crazy, and I never laughed so hard in my entire life.” He hoped to capture some of New York’s long shadow in Garden State, but the weather didn’t comply. “We picked this one location because it had the most amazing view of the entire skyline of the city,” he says, “but we went to shoot there, and it was totally fogged in and raining.”

The film doesn’t really miss it. Garden State is, after all, a valentine to “the breadbasket of the mid-Atlantic,” a place Braff hopes wider audiences can learn to see as just as romantic as Manhattan itself. It’s about the dream of a permanent arty adolescence, in which one is eager for the authentic and deep—but comfortable making do with a commutable distance to them. Friends ask him if the movie is going to screen at the Angelika—“the layman’s way of saying, ‘Is your movie going to be a small little indie?’ ” he says—and Braff happily tells them it’s playing at the most suburban urban multiplex in Manhattan, at Union Square. In the end, that is the Jersey sensibility: You can brood and you can emote, but ultimately, you want to fit in. As Braff says sweetly, at the conclusion of our interview, “Just make me sound cool.”

Garden State opens July 28 at UA Union Square, 212-253-2225

Melancholy Baby