One version of Zach Braff is pure confection. His image -- hair wet, mouth open, standing in the rain -- is embossed onto a thick chocolate plaque, an edible mock-up of the movie poster for Braff's new film, "Garden State." On this afternoon, mini-Braff rolls into a suite at the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Washington on a room-service tray, alongside lunch.
The other version of Zach Braff is there too, six feet tall: flesh, bone, muscle, T-shirt, Nikes, wavy hair, blue eyes and smattering of freckles all converging into a smile and a finger-wag of delight at his edible likeness. In the last decade, he has morphed from a film student to a waiter at a French Vietnamese restaurant to a full-fledged Hollywood power player. Now, his replication in chocolate provides one more indication that Zach Braff has become a big deal.
Not just anyone gets such an honor. The 29-year-old actor, who plays a 26-year-old actor in the movie that he also wrote and directed, knows this. Consequently, he announces, he would like the plaque packed in ice and shipped to his father in New Jersey.
No problem, say his handlers.
"I wish I could have chocolate with my face on it delivered to my room every day," he says. For a kid from New Jersey who's now got his choice of future starring roles and writing/directing projects, that candy store daydream is beginning to come true.
The writer-actor-director is antsy in his overstuffed armchair. He has been drinking -- mainlining? -- caffeine for days now. Braff explains: "Garden State" is an indie, so it's relatively low-budget. In place of heavy advertising, he has been traveling the country doing screenings and answering questions to help promote the film.
The trip has been a little more hectic than he expected, he says, but then, he doesn't have much to compare it to. The movie, which opens Friday, is his debut as a feature screenwriter and director.
The particularly attentive will recognize him as Woody Allen and Diane Keaton's son in "Manhattan Murder Mystery." But most will know him, if they know him at all, for his role as J.D., a goofy surgical resident on NBC's medical comedy "Scrubs."
He auditioned six times for that role. After he got it, he bought a house in Los Angeles, wrote "Garden State," but otherwise did not change much about his life. He insists he is just a normal guy. He doesn't go to many Hollywood parties. He's not "out on the scene," he says, making quotation marks in the air with his fingers. "I still have to do the dishes when I go to my parents' house," he says.
There is something Semitic-sexy about Braff, something reminiscent of "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart in his pale skin and the way his hair curls in a manner over which he obviously has little control. His eyes, darting, make him look as if he's on the verge of making a joke, and it's disappointing when you realize he isn't. Braff looks and acts exactly as you might expect from seeing him on TV. He is not taller or shorter, thinner or buffer, older or younger or tanner or paler -- nor is he funnier, duller, nor more or less bug-eyed -- which may be why his movie about boring, frustrating, normal life works. He seems so much like everyone else that it's possible to believe he is just like everyone else. That way his semi-autobiographical story becomes the story of our lives.
Braff's subject in "Garden State" is vague unhappiness: what it looks like and how it feels. "I've experienced really numb parts of my life," Braff says. "I've experienced feeling just totally lost and bored and lonesome, and this was just turning up the volume on all those parts of my personality."
His character, Andrew Largeman, lives, thanks to the generous dose of lithium his psychiatrist father prescribes for him, as if he is always in the backseat of a car, gazing out the window at an indistinguishable blur.
An aspiring actor in Los Angeles, "Large," as he is called, hates his day job, which involves the generous application of eyeliner, the donning of a waiter kimono and the serving of overpriced fusion food to underfed models. He's been out of touch with his family for nine years, and has no intention of reestablishing contact. He's detached. He's aimless. He would feel empty if he could feel at all.
Then the call comes from his father telling him his mother has died suddenly and asking that he come home for the funeral. He leaves sunny California for gloomy New Jersey, where, apparently, it is perpetually overcast. And beneath those clouds seems to be every young person in America -- just out of school, unsettled at work, unsure about the future, embarking on a quest to find himself.
This should be an emotional homecoming for Large, all the more so because he has left the lithium back in his medicine cabinet in Los Angeles, but he arrives to find the place is not as he hoped it would be. His friends are there, and his family, but it isn't home.
The past becomes unavoidable, popping up wherever he looks: One former classmate is the grave-digger who buries his mother; another has become improbably rich and predictably bored by inventing silent Velcro; another has become a cop who pulls him over.
To strangers, Large is best known for having played a retarded football player so effectively in one movie that people who meet him are genuinely surprised to find he is not retarded. Among these strangers is an epileptic named Sam, played by Natalie Portman, whom he befriends at a neurologist's office, where he seeks treatment for the headaches he has been getting since he went off the antidepressants cold turkey.
And so he begins constructing a community out of these people as a replacement for his lost home. "Maybe that's all a family really is," Large says at one point, "a group of people who miss the same imaginary place."
The movie lumbers forward as if driving through a thick fog. It "takes its time," Braff says. "It doesn't rush, and it doesn't speak down to the audience. It's about people. Nothing blows up, and no one shoots each other. It's just about human beings."
Making Something New
Braff's favorite scene in "Garden State" is when Sam takes Large up to her bedroom for the first time. There, she introduces him to her bizarre way of feeling special by creating something absolutely new.
"This is your chance to do something that has never, ever been done before and will never be copied throughout human existence. If nothing else, you'll be remembered as the only person who ever did this," she tells him. "This" is a random, silly movement paired with a random, silly noise.
Her point is one that Braff makes with the movie, and with his own life. He is working with his brother on a screenplay adaptation of his favorite children's book, Doris Burns's "Andrew Henry's Meadow." The story is about a boy who likes to invent new things using objects he finds around his house: a helicopter made with a barrel, a broom, two boards and two spatulas; a merry-go-round made with a sewing machine, an umbrella and scissors; a toy car roller coaster made with a bucket and parts of an electric fan.
The plot of "Garden State" was similarly constructed -- culled from newspaper clippings, remembered conversations and rough anecdotes written on matchbooks and napkins and collected over the course of Braff's standard suburban public school upbringing in South Orange, N.J. His first acting role was Trombone Player Number 7 in "The Music Man." At age 14, he was cast in his first professional part, opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in a sitcom directed by her father, Bruce. As a child, he liked magic shows and disliked sports. In 1993, he left home to study film at Northwestern University.
If you are in a certain phase of your life, in a certain demographic, in a certain part of the country, it seems possible while watching this movie to float right out of your seat, through the screen, and into the basement den where Andrew Largeman and his high school friends smoke pot and play spin the bottle when they're a little too old to be doing either. Perhaps, you think, this Andrew Largeman -- and, by extension, Braff -- really gets it, really lives it, really knows. Perhaps what Braff has created is more documentary than drama.
But then -- and, happily for Fox Searchlight Pictures, most people don't have this experience -- you meet Braff in person and you begin to notice that there is a Hollywood polish to his averageness. At first he looks just like anyone else, talking modestly about doing the dishes and raising his puppy. But then you notice his eyes are a little brighter when he talks about his movie. Likewise, his smile is toothier when he talks about his upcoming projects, including playing the main character in a Disney cartoon version of "Chicken Little." And after enough time in a hotel suite with him, you notice his restlessness in confined spaces is a little more pronounced -- fidgety, he picks up a decorative chocolate from a plate displayed in his suite, walking and talking as he snacks.
His jeans are a little fancier than what most people wear and his shiny white sneakers are provided gratis, another perk of the career breakthrough that turned him from another guy from New Jersey into a movie writer/director/star. "When I made it, I thought, well, there must be some twenty-somethings out there who can relate to what I'm going through."
And that's true, almost hauntingly so, until the 10-inch chocolate plaque arrives with Braff's image carefully reproduced, down to the free sneakers. So snaps the illusion of fraternity.
"I'm a sucker for a happy ending," Braff says, Willy Wonka-like, chewing on a small piece of his sugary fortune.