"GARDEN STATE" is a sweet homecoming for New Jersey native Zach Braff, who wrote, directed and stars in this story about a TV actor who returns to his Jersey home town. An edgy quasi-comedy, it's very funny in places, touching in others. There is a little unevenness. But for a directorial debut, it's amazingly assured.

Braff plays Andrew Largeman, the prodigal son who comes to bury his mother after an absence of nine years. He has been living in Los Angeles, working as an actor. His biggest success there has been a TV performance as a retarded quarterback.

Andrew returns to Jersey with a lot of anger to redress. He has spent most of his life under a cloud of Zoloft and lithium, thanks to his prescription-happy father (Ian Holm). And it's only his mother's passing that has prompted him to stop taking the drugs. Flying a little loose without that lithium, he's about to face a world he'd just as soon forget.

Everyone from his high school days, it seems, lives in the Twlight Zone. Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) is a gravedigger who isn't above helping himself to those keepsake jewels left in some coffins. Another friend is into medieval reenactment; he eats breakfast in armor. Another kid has become a cop who loves to pull people over for minor infractions and treat them as if he's conducting a major drug bust. Another pal has made millions inventing a Velcro that makes no sound. He likes to host Ecstasy-fueled parties at his mansion.

It's back to Stonerville and Kegtown, only everyone's older.

And then he runs into Samantha (Natalie Portman), an eccentric free spirit and motormouth who ought to have the words Quirky Love Interest tattooed to her petite forehead. Predictably, she rejuvenates Andrew's sleeping spirit.

The movie, which suggests an updated, twenty-something spin on "The Graduate," has so much creative richness, you can overlook its passing shortcomings. Oftentimes, it's a little too precious for its own good. Portman, unintentionally reprising the wildcard-next-door role she played in "Beautiful Girls," has a manner that is immediately enchanting and irritating at the same time. But in concert with the morose Andrew, her Sam comes out as colorful relief.

As this romantic section becomes, increasingly, the thrust of the movie, "Garden State" loses its sharpness. But it pulls through triumphantly at the end with an out-of-this-world visit to a special house that sits atop what seems to be the biggest hole in the universe. I won't explain that one, because it's part of the mind-blowing guided tour that Mark gives Andrew to help change his view of this place, these people and himself. Watching this, you will too.

GARDEN STATE ( R, 102 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sexual scenes, and drug and alcohol use. Area theaters.

Wallflower Zach Braff in "Garden State," his amazingly assured directorial debut.