Zach Braff in Garden StateGARDEN STATE

Zach Braff's indie comedy Garden State is something rare: a homecoming tale told with a clear eye and, more often than not, a refreshing lack of sentimentality.

Braff, who also wrote and directed the film, stars as Andrew Largeman, a New Jersey native trying, and mostly failing, to succeed as an actor in Los Angeles.(Largeman's one brush with fame came from playing a retarded quarterback for a TV movie.) Anesthetized from years of anti-depressants, Largeman lives in a near-catatonic stupor, until the unexpected death of his mother forces him to return to his hometown in Jersey for an extended stay. While there, Largeman faces old ghosts, reconnects with childhood friends, and attempts life without the aid of his meds; he also becomes bewitched by a young woman, Sam (Natalie Portman), whose free-spirited flakiness represents everything missing from his own upbringing.

In so many ways, Garden State - a you-can't-go-home-again tale in which going home turns out to be the healthiest thing you can do - could have become awash in either sneering contempt or maudlin fakery. Yet Braff's script is a work of comic delicacy. Largeman is more amused by his past than nostalgic for it, and his shrugging acceptance of his roots gives the film an original texture; we gradually realize that Largeman isn't necessarily going to have any great epiphanies or Become a Better Person. (Even his inevitable confrontation with his icy, withholding father, played by Ian Holm, is free of histrionics.) He doesn't want to undo the past so much as face it and move on; the movie has a clear eye and a clear head.

As a screenwriter, Braff proves masterful at withholding information until it becomes essential to the story. A good 20 minutes pass until you find out exactly why Largeman is so hesitant about returning home, and an hour goes by before you discover how Largeman's depression is tied to his mother's accidental death; when the revelations do come, they hit you like a smack to the face - they both narrow the scope and enlarge the meaning of everything you've seen beforehand. Braff also writes smart, funny dialogue that gives marvelously bittersweet insight into his characters; I particularly loved it when Sam, burying a beloved pet, finished her eulogy with "I hope you liked me." (How wonderfully, weirdly touching is that?) Scene for scene, Garden State's script plays beautifully. Though several sequences feature a sort of sitcom cuteness, they're tempered by biting wit and an expansive heart; it's an incredibly assured work by a debuting screenwriter. (I do wish, however, that Braff's direction wasn't so overtly stylized, especially in the opening reel; shots of Largeman's too-neatly-arranged medicine cabinet, or Largeman passing a row of restroom faucets that turn on in tandem, call too much attention to the stylization and momentarily pull you out of the movie.)

Braff might layer too much visual artifice into the film's conception, but his handling of the cast is nothing if not honest; a number of marvelous actors make vivid impressions. Natalie Portman hasn't been this fresh and spontaneous in years (after her dismal appearances in George Lucas' recent Star Wars films, some of us had forgotten why we liked her in the first place), Peter Sarsgaard - an actor incapable of dullness - is wonderfully sly as Largeman's grave-digging pal, and Braff himself delivers a subtle, nuanced portrayal that will seem revelatory to those who know him only from NBC's Scrubs. (Ian Holm, no one's idea of an uptight Jewish psychiatrist, makes up for his miscasting by giving an emotionally devastating performance.) Any director who grants this much space and love to his performers is doing something right, and Braff more than makes up for any rookie directorial mistakes with his handling of the actors; there isn't one you're eager to be rid of, and several, such as one-scene-wonders Jean Smart and Ron Leibman, you wish you could spend more time with.

Many have compared the experience of Garden State to Lost in Translation, and while Braff doesn't yet have Sofia Coppola's sureness of tone (directorially, at least), he, too, gets at inchoate feelings of wistful melancholy and longing, and like Coppola, he's more aroused by romantic possibility than romance itself. The film casts an intoxicating spell. (Braff is also more of a pure entertainer than Coppola; those who found Translation alienating won't have any such reservations here.) Garden State, an art-house hit finally getting released in the area, is a dexterous, assured debut and wholly entertaining to boot; it's the best time I've had at the cineplex in months.


Reese Witherspoon in Vanity FairVANITY FAIR

Mira Nair's Vanity Fair isn't an embarrassment - it looks terrific and is modestly entertaining - but it's not Vanity Fair, either, at least not the one that William Makepeace Thackeray wrote. The experience of the film is akin to reading every other chapter of Thackeray's novel, or rather, just the chapters in which Becky Sharp appears. In this most recent adaptation of the beloved book, screenwriters Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellowes, and Mark Skeet have made this often-monstrous ensemble character the main show, and this approach might have worked if Reese Witherspoon had come close to doing the role justice. Unfortunately, though, the pert Witherspoon plays Becky as a chirpy young go-getter with only the barest hint of a dark side - a complete misreading of the character. Nair and Witherspoon have all but turned Vanity Fair into a vanity project, and if it weren't for grizzled character turns from the likes of Bob Hoskins and the great Eileen Atkins, the film wouldn't seem much different from you-go-girl works such as Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama. In order to turn a classic read into a multiplex sensation, that might have been the filmmakers' intention, but it's not one that I - nor, I imagine, Thackeray - necessarily approve of.


Diane Krueger and Josh Hartnett in Wicker ParkWICKER PARK

I've seen Mulholland Dr. I've seen Donnie Darko. And yet I don't think I've ever been as baffled by a movie as I was by Wicker Park. Just what the hell is going on here? If you've seen the trailers, Paul McGuigan's film - a remake of the 1996 French work L'Appartement - would seem to be a teenybopper clone of Single White Female, with stalker-nutjob Rose Byrne making life miserable for that white-bread dullard Josh Hartnett. But no. It's an incoherently edited and staggeringly confused relationship drama that dovetails among not two, not three, but four sets of intertwined flashbacks, so that you never understand what's going on between the characters or what their relationships with each other are, and a degree in quantum physics might be necessary to determine the movie's chronology. With the exception of an intermittently amusing Matthew Lillard, everything about the production is a mopey drag - it should have been called Whimper Park - and I'd go on a longer tirade about it if memories of the film didn't give me a splitting headache.

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