So the star of a hit sitcom has this idea for a movie -- and Natalie Portman is attached to costar. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But ''Scrubs'' schlub Zach Braff struggled to find investors for his modestly budgeted dark comedy ''Garden State,'' in which he plays a troubled actor who returns to his New Jersey hometown after the sudden death of his mother. Now, though, with the Sundance-approved film opening across the country Aug. 6 (and in New York and L.A. on July 28), Braff's struggles should be over: His hard-won directorial debut is set to be a summer hit. Take a joyride down the Turnpike and see why:
Natalie Portman's performances in the ''Star Wars'' prequels were stiffer than Han Solo in Carbonite, leading some to wonder whether the now-23-year-old had peaked in her child-actor days. But as Sam, the quirky, compulsively dishonest love interest of Braff's Andrew Largeman, Portman delivers her most human performance in years, revealing un-Amidala-like comedic talents. ''I love Lily Tomlin and Diane Keaton,'' says Portman, who spends much of the movie stammering like Keaton's Annie Hall. Adds Braff: ''I think it's closer to 'Harold & Maude.' I told Natalie I wanted her to be a 21-year-old Ruth Gordon.''
Zach Braff, 29, turns out to be a far more nuanced and emotional actor than he's had a chance to demonstrate in his hospital pratfalls. But he's also a gifted director and screenwriter, capable of delivering memorable sight gags -- Andrew's aunt gives him a tacky shirt that perfectly matches the tacky wallpaper behind him -- and true-to-life storytelling. ''I said, I'm not going to pay attention to the screenwriting rules that are so wonderfully spoofed in the movie 'Adaptation,''' Braff explains. ''I'm just gonna write a story.''
Laughs Though it's packed with jokes, no one will mistake ''Garden State'' for a lost ''Scrubs'' episode. ''The comedy on 'Scrubs' is a lot broader,'' Braff says. ''And [Andrew] is essentially the straight man in the movie -- I'm by no means the straight man in 'Scrubs.''' Still, by simply reacting to the strangeness around him, Braff gets more than his share of laughs. When Sam first meets Andrew, she recognizes him from a TV movie where he played a mentally challenged quarterback. ''Are you really retarded?'' she asks, wide-eyed. ''No,'' Braff deadpans. ''I'm not.''
Tunes After their initial exchange, Sam and Andrew bond over her favorite band: the indie-pop act the Shins, whose music figures largely in a pitch-perfect soundtrack that also includes acoustic moper Iron & Wine, Scottish singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch, and the electronic pop act Frou Frou. If it all sounds like selections from a hipster's iTunes playlist, that's no coincidence. ''The Shins are the greatest band in the world,'' says Braff, who also persuaded Simon & Garfunkel to let him use ''The Only Living Boy in New York'' for the film.
And it speaks for a generation. With its of-the-moment music and convincing depiction of youthful ennui, ''Garden State'' has won comparisons to another film that uses Simon & Garfunkel: the era-defining 1967 classic ''The Graduate.'' And that makes Braff nervous. ''That puts too much pressure on the movie,'' he says. ''That's like seeing a toddler who's good at basketball and saying he's gonna be the next Michael Jordan.'' Still, there's no denying that ''Garden State'' will resonate with teens and twentysomethings. ''I do think what 'The Graduate' did was take the temperature of a generation,'' Braff says. ''And what I aspired to do was to have this film speak to people in a similar way.''