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He’s just a Jersey Joe

Times Staff Writer

As Zach Braff speaks, his eyes are always searching. Folded onto a bench recently at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, he seems to look over the white linen tablecloths, past the palm trees and through the sweatered diners at nothing at all.

It’s a nervous tic, really, but still. That restless quality, as if he’s lost something but doesn’t know quite what, seeps into many aspects of his life, including his work -- the vehicle he’s chosen for his return to the big screen encapsulates that soul-searching quality for which Braff has become best known.

It’s no coincidence. He says he chooses roles and projects according to what questions he’s mulling in his own life and the emotional reactions they evoke.

If “Garden State” -- the 2004 indie hit he wrote, directed and headlined -- came down to identifying with a boy on the brink of manhood in his mid-20s, a period Braff dubs “the mind’s puberty,” then his new film, “The Last Kiss,” which opened Friday, is about finding your way to the other side unscathed, the Girl in tow, only to look around and wonder, is this it?

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In “Kiss,” Braff plays Michael, an architect enjoying a picturesque life with his girlfriend (Jacinda Barrett), when she discovers she’s pregnant. The sudden curveball triggers a series of doubts that, in turn, triggers a series of indiscretions that ends in a tryst with a barely legal temptress, played by Rachel Bilson.

Michael is not at all lovable. Actually, he kind of makes you want to scream and throw things. Because of that, director Tony Goldwyn says the film’s success hinged on finding an actor who wasn’t just “some young, sexy guy with movie-star charisma,” but someone real, an “everyman.”

He saw that in Braff.

“People feel like they know Zach when they see him on screen. They feel like he’s their buddy,” says Goldwyn, who compared the actor to Tom Hanks in that respect.

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Once Braff came aboard, he promptly made himself useful polishing the script (at Goldwyn’s request) to ensure that the characters sounded and behaved like men his age, writing additional scenes, supplying the director with hundreds of song options for the soundtrack and brainstorming ideas for camera angles in an “incredibly respectful and never obtrusive” way, the director says -- one such shot, of a recently exiled Michael sprawled on his front stoop beside a “Home” doormat, became his favorite of the film.

What people shouldn’t expect from Braff’s second outing is another drug-sprinkled joyride.

"['Garden State’] was an attempt at making a big, life-affirming, state-of-the-union address for twentysomethings,” Braff says.

He succeeded. The film spoke to his generation’s sense of humor, its perceptions and its demons, and with that performance, the actor wedged himself into the vocabulary of thousands of flip-flopped youth. Groups on Facebook -- a collegiate social networking website similar to MySpace -- soon cropped up with such titles as “The Meaning of Life (a.k.a. Garden State),” “I Can’t Stop Thinking About Zach Braff” and, for the dissenters, “Garden State? Not So Great.”

Now he’s just hoping all those folks (and then some) will stick around as he tackles a fresh set of queries.

Weaned on Woody

At 31, Braff still retains an awkwardness that conjures memories of a college crush: that pensive, slightly goofy guy in English Lit. A nice Jewish boy you just know your mom would love.

The New Jersey native grew up with a film camera in his hand and Woody Allen movies flickering on his walls -- his father, a lawyer big into community theater, would throw dinner parties that included movie screenings. Braff said he remembers using crayons at age 6 to make an “Annie Hall” poster for one such gathering.

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He shares little more about his personal life. After getting burned by a recent bout of tabloid attention -- for the record, yes, he is single, but no, he is most definitely not dating Jessica Simpson -- Braff is fiercely private and protective of his family, with whom he said he spends most of his free time, along with a handful of close friends.

Michael Weston is one such friend. Known to many as Kenny the cop from “Garden State,” he joins his fellow Northwestern alum again in “The Last Kiss.” The actors befriended each other about a decade ago while filming a movie in Jersey and shared a house in Laurel Canyon their first four years in Los Angeles.

“Everyone thought we were a couple. We’d drag our trash cans out and be like, ‘Helloooooo,’ ” he says, laughing.

Weston describes his friend as many characterize the actor side of him: someone who, within moments, can shift from “deep, sorrowful and sensitive” to bouncing around like a kid who’s eaten one too many sugar cookies.

Whoever has an interest in seeing both sides at play can hit up one of Braff’s lesser discussed pet projects: his blog. A homebody with a thirst for a discourse with fans, Braff says he quickly took to cyber communication.

In the zachbraff.com intro video, a bespectacled Braff wearing a “challa at your boy” tee says what’s up: “I don’t want it to be a site about me,” he says, “ ‘cause that’ll get boring really fast, and let’s be honest, nobody’s going to buy, like, a Zach Braff calendar. I want it to be about you guys.” He then describes his vision for the site, which includes a student filmmaker festival and an amateur photo gallery.

On the blog, a scrapbook-looking page with browning edges and Terry Gilliam-esque cutouts, an ever-changing list lets everyone know the songs he’s sweet on -- a nod to the popularity of his Grammy-winning “Garden State” soundtrack, which he compiled -- and diary-style entries detail his days and epiphanies.

“We talk about movies, and we talk about nonsense,” he says. “It’s just like having a conversation with a friend, except you just happen to be talking to thousands of people.”

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Every time he updates the site, Yesenia Schacht, a paralegal living in South Florida, receives an e-mail letting her know. Schacht, whose husband gave her an I {heart} Braff T-shirt for her last birthday and will be seeing “The Last Kiss” for this one, says her “healthy obsession” with the actor stems from his soft spot for his hometown and the Average Joe vibe he exudes, even when on a red carpet.

“When I read his blogs, I truly feel like it’s a personal e-mail to me,” Schacht says, quickly acknowledging how crazy that sounds. She’s not alone.

Hundreds of fans respond to each of Braff’s entries with their own posts. They’ll suggest bands he may like, fill him in on their Friday night plans or scrounge up ways to make his terrier mutt, Roscoe, feel better after surgery to remove a tumor from his paw.

This genuine eagerness to form a bond with the strangers who support him hints at an affability that’s central to his personality. He’s just a guy from Jersey who wants to make movies while trying to -- forgive the phrase -- keep it real.

“The success of the last five years, it can be like whiplash,” he says. “It’s important to check back in with who you really are, make sure you’re staying true to that.” For him, that means asking, “What story do I want to tell right now?”

The road ahead

Contrary to speculation, it’s not “Andrew Henry’s Meadow,” an adaptation of a children’s book he’s working on with his brother, Adam -- though he plans to produce it.

Instead, he’s opted to helm the remake of a 2002 Danish Dogme film, “Open Hearts,” which explores the shaken lives of four people after a car crash renders one of them paralyzed. He says it promises to be a piece woven with raw emotions that is probably “a little less accessible than ‘Garden State.’ ”

That said, he doesn’t expect his sophomore turn at directing to reach the popularity his first did. “I can’t expect that that’ll ever happen again with anything I create,” he says. “I’ll be the first one to say I’m not going to try and follow it.”

With “Open Hearts” he will, however, strive to sharpen the visual sensibility he displayed in 2004 while delving into the characters and dialogue that make the film’s heartbeat -- a little Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a little Woody Allen.

He makes it clear though, that he still doesn’t have the answers to life’s questions.

“I have zero answers,” he says, tracing a nonexistent line in the worn leather of the restaurant booth.

“I just have a bunch of questions. I think if anything, I’m good at asking questions that other people are asking too.”

Kelly-Anne.Suarez@latimes .com


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