Going blank again

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THE SOUNDTRACK FROM Garden State  (Twentieth Century Fox Home Video, $29.98) has now infiltrated a healthy percentage of San Francisco's cafés and boutiques. The country is a-flower with new Shins fans, while the coffers of Messrs. Simon and Garfunkel, whose "Only Living Boy in New York" surfaces in the film at a moment of rain-soaked poignancy, are no doubt ringing with the cl ink ing sound of incoming royalties on the latest round of reunion-tour and greatest-hits albums. And if anecdotal evidence of an emergent cult can be entered into the record, perhaps it means something that my housemate's younger sister, a college freshman, came to visit over the Christmas holidays equipped with a suitably drab Garden State T-shirt the color of UPS workers' uniforms (promoting itself via self-effacement in the spirit of the film); matching buttons for her handbag; and knowledge of the DVD's imminent release date fervently beating inside her brain like an extra pulse.

I, too, was waiting, though I counted my lucky stars when she bought the thing, saving me the discomfort and embarrassment of a rabid early-morning appearance at the DVD store. I'd already trekked out to West Portal to see Garden State near the beginning of its big-screen release. And stood in line again toward the end of its lengthy run in a (successful) attempt to create a convert (my girlfriend). And had a temper tantrum when it came in 97th in the Village Voice's film critics' poll – below that life-eating waste of time Coffee and Cigarettes, far below Anchorman (!) and The Polar Express (!!). Really, what are the chances that a story about a numb, spaced-out human being reentering Earth's orbit will have less going for it than the sight of a  bunc h of famous people chatting off-script about coffee?

Directed, written, and starred in by Scrubs' Zach Braff, Garden State is sweet and clever and filled with the kind of tiny, lovable moments – the broken-off gas pump handle, the fast-food knight, the hamster mansion, any shot with Peter Sarsgaard in it – that help turn a movie's audience into a medium-size cult. Many critics have acknowledged these truths, but also complained about the film's slightness, about Braff's characterless character: the affect-deficient, emotionally hobbled Andrew Largeman (a name straight out of AP English), who's chosen a trip home for his mother's funeral to jettison a 17-year lithium habit and the inappropriate ministrations of his psychiatrist father. It has been suggested that Andrew's emptiness leaves the film without a center. Other cavils concern the stock quirkiness of love interest/lifesaver Sam (Natalie Portman), whose cute meet and subsequent interactions with Andrew help reveal what sort of person he's managed to become – despite the meds, a fairly original childhood trauma, and the chilly region of familial dysfunction he's been circling for years.

What kind of slight, stock, characterless person would enjoy, adore, or want to own this film, with all its flaws? Perhaps the sort who sees traces of familiarity in Andrew's predicament of feeling  closed  off from the events of his own life, or enjoys watching him slowly work his way in from the perimeter (or just wants to see Natalie Portman go swimming in her underwear). At every moment of such a story line, there are gaping pitfalls, violin strings waiting to be plucked, but Braff, a first-time director, shows an admirable kind of reserve that somewhat mirrors the strangely seductive, quiet blankness of his character. As a director, he's constantly rejecting the violins and finding something charming or funny or even emotionally moving to offer instead.