Actor pokes fun at Jewish guilt in quirky indie film

Zach Braff’s character on the TV series “Scrubs” is nondenominational. But occasionally the 29-year-old actor’s affection for a comic icon of an earlier generation pushes his performance past some invisible boundary.

“J.D.’s supposed to be Everyman U.S.A., but there’s times when all I hear is how Woody would deliver the line,” Braff confesses with a smile. “And the show runner says, ‘All right, a little too Jewish, buddy, pull it back.'”

Unabashedly proud of his Jewish heritage, Braff makes gentle fun of it in “Garden State,” a likable deadpan comedy-cum-romance that he wrote, directed and stars in. The quirky indie film, which features Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman, opens Friday, Aug. 6, in San Francisco and Berkeley.

“I wanted to write what I knew, and what I knew was growing up in a Conservative Jewish family in suburban New Jersey,” the gangly, self-assured Braff explains during a recent publicity stop in San Francisco.

“Garden State” opens with the numb waiter-actor Andrew Largeman (Braff) returning home, after nine years in Los Angeles, for his estranged mother’s funeral.

The time may have arrived to deal with his stiff father (Ian Holm), a therapist who started his son on a steady dose of lithium long ago. That’s the real reason for Andrew’s numbness — which is now beginning to fade since he stopped taking his meds when he boarded the plane.

“I think there’s the good old-fashioned Jewish guilt that’s very strong in this movie,” Braff says. “And there’s a lot of unsaid pressure put on the father and son to somehow forgive each other, and yet neither one is willing to step up and do that.”

Although the setting is autobiographical — Braff shot the film on location in New Jersey, and his mother and stepfather are psychologists — the budding filmmaker’s adolescence diverged significantly from his character’s.

“If you’re going to go with Jewish stereotypes, then the one I experienced in my family was a great deal of affection,” he says. “My father always hugged me. We come from a family of big huggers and [we’re] very open with our emotions.”

Braff also had more of a Jewish upbringing than the movie-character. “I was raised for the first 13 years of my life kosher. When I had my bar mitzvah, my father allowed me to make up my mind, and by that time I

was really ready to have a cheeseburger,” he says with a chuckle.

For a huge and supposedly very funny shiva scene, Braff saved the cost of extras by using his relatives and his parents’ friends. He gave his trial lawyer father — who acted for years in community theater and was the inspiration for Braff going into acting — an especially tricky line that he eventually nailed.

Viewers must take Braff’s word for all this, because he cut the scene at the last minute. His dad, along with everyone else, will have to wait for the DVD to savor his performance.

Another bit that didn’t make the cut is the electronic mezuzah in the Largeman manor that beeps the Sh’ma when someone passes by. “It’s funny, it’ll be on the DVD, but it wasn’t driving the story at all,” Braff relates. “It was just a gag.”

Braff the writer even finds laughs in the funeral scene, which kicks off with a hilariously grotesque performance of a mourner singing “Three Times a Lady.” Then it takes an unexpected turn.

“There’s one thing I did experience at every Jewish funeral I’ve been to, which really bothers me,” he says animatedly.

“There’s the people around the grave, mourning the person they lost, and then 20 yards away are two guys on a tractor, waiting for the whole thing to get wrapped up so they can go to lunch. Not their fault, it’s just their job, but that always upset me and I wished they weren’t there right in front of me. So when I started writing the script, I thought, ‘What if he knew those guys? What if we brought those guys into the fold, and he went to high school with them.'”

It’s not a surprise to learn that poking fun was a regular activity in Braff’s family. Even now, he ribs his mother and father. “If you’re not going to be a doctor,” he says, “the second-best thing you can do is to play a doctor on television to appease your Jewish parents.”

Never much of a templegoer, Braff declares, “My closest connection to Judaism is Jewish humor and my connection to the holidays when I go home.”

Asked to define Jewish humor, he has a ready reply. “I’m sure it’s different for different generations, but for me the seed of it in my life is Woody Allen.”

Braff was in “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” and more than a decade later he still remembers the one-liners Allen cracked on the set. Asked if he swapped quips with his idol, Braff recoils.

“Are you kidding? I was 18 years old and my palms were dripping with sweat. I was lucky I got my lines out. I was just watching him with wide eyes. It was quite a once-in-a lifetime experience.”

“Garden State” opens Friday, Aug. 6, at the Bridge, 3010 Geary Blvd, S.F., and the Shattuck, 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.