Returning to his New Jersey home for his mothers funeral, moderately successful LA actor Andrew Largeman (Braff) feels distanced and depressed by his empty life. But a few days spent with free-spirited Sam (Portman) lead Andrew to reconsider whether his
Like scoutmasters with moustaches or anybody holding a clipboard, actors-turned-directors should be treated with suspicion. For every Oscar-worthy Clint Eastwood or Ron Howard, there's an Ethan Hawke or Matt Dillon lurking with some pretentious bilge to throw on an undeserving public. Thankfully, despite being recognisable only from his goofy pratfalling on the US sitcom Scrubs, Zach Braff shows little of the self-consciousness that riddles most vanity projects, proving himself a first-time writer-director with a sophisticated eye.
Braff takes the familiar themes of hometown dislocation and middle-youth angst and refreshes them with humour, visual invention and one magic ingredient: Natalie Portman. Cliches be damned; she's a revelation. Okay, she's been a revelation before, as the pouting, precocious junior assassin in Leon, but years of duff choices and a staccato vagueness in her Star Wars outings suggested her talent had ebbed as hormones set in. Playing Sam, the uninhibited optimist who wafts away Andrew's veil of melancholia and makes him realise life ain't so bad after all, she's entrancingly natural, hilarious and loveable. It would be no surprise to see her among next year's Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominees.
The film suffers slightly when Portman's energy is absent from the screen - Andrew is a rather more sedate presence - but Braff's peculiar outlook is constantly engaging and surprising. Not only has he an ear for casually witty dialogue, but he can also compose shots of offbeat beauty, suffusing the banal with abstract frivolity (a knight at the breakfast table, an ice-skating alligator) that never come across as trying too hard. He deftly balances the singular journeys of Andrew, Sam and Andrew's aimless acquaintance Mark (the ever terrific Peter Sarsgaard), subtly plaiting them together into a moving whole.
The only time the storytelling falters is when Braff tries to say too much, hammering home what he's already articulated well enough for most of the film: that life is what you make of it. A scene between Andrew and his estranged father (an underused Ian Holm) comes across as pat and unnecessary, but its inclusion only mildly dilutes a great debut from a promising talent.
One of the best directorial debuts in recent memory - it's surely only a matter of time until Braff makes the permanent move from small screen to silver.