Toll Road: Exit 30

Oh, baby, one "Last Kiss … " Bye, bye Birdie? No — bring back Braff!

Zach Braff has bragging rights to the age of innocence since his golden "Garden State" took its toll on movie-goers hearts two years ago, generating acclaim and applause for hitting the spot with its examination of Generation X.

Why "Z" is returning to the big screen now is to take a look at how turning 30 turns one into that most endangered of spurious species: the man child.

"Garden State," states its writer/director/star, was a genuine journey through the 20s while "The Last Kiss" is not so much a kiss-off of those years when one moves on but a longing for the good "old" days.

And Braff is good at portraying how longing for those days can short-circuit expectations in his new film, opening Friday, Sept. 15.

But then, he's always good for a greeting. "Sholom," he says as we renew a chat that started out erev his "Garden State" days, where an on-target funeral left Jewish audiences shivah-ing with recognition at its honest depiction.

Scrub the New Jersey native and discover a palpable sensitivity penetrating the patina of cool dude of denim that he's cultivated over the years, even if his J.D. on TV's "Scrubs" is more dufus than dangerous.

Turning 30 is a different kind of coming-of-age than the one his character in "Garden State" lived through. "But then," says Braff, "every new chapter brings its challenges, especially if you're a nice Jewish boy and you're newsworthy."

He should know; Braff's worth his weight in news clippings. He's already decried being described as "the male Paris Hilton" for his reported ability to turn up at a club opening quicker than his quirky J.D. can come up with an excuse for commitment.

There have been the reported liaison with actress Mandy Moore and an entourage of romantic hopefuls, including data on his dates with "Garden State" co-star Natalie Portman.

Star wars on the gossip pages: And while Hollywood and hot dates are as common as chicken of the sea, there was one tuna tale that melted hearts — rumors of his reeling in and linking up with Jessica Simpson.

There Will Always Be Paris
Truth be told, he'll tell you reported trysts are trying his patience since many (although not necessarily all) aren't factual — especially his status as haute himbo on the club scene. Too busy writing, acting, researching, he says to be the zany Zach zapped by critics for being a late-night Lothario.

As he told David Letterman on "Late Show," "I'm kind of jealous of the life I'm supposedly leading."

But the new millennium's new leading man leads with his heart in "The Last Kiss" even if the last thing on his mind right now is marriage. "A lot of guys and girls see marriage as the beginning and the end of youth. I can relate to that, to the finality of it."

Final call … bachelorhood. But if marriage scares off Michael, his "Kiss" character, masking his true emotions much like a Gene Simmons of singledom, the actor himself is not afraid of flying by the seat of his pants … or, for that matter, winging it.

He may have voiced "Chicken Little" onscreen, but there's a lot to crow about in real life. "Flying scares the hell out of me," but Braff does it anyway, blue-skying ideas while soaring at the helm of a plane.

The driver at the wheel of "Garden State" isn't interested in life as EZ Pass. "I always want to do things that challenge me," says the actor aerialist, who not so much just turned 31 as is "diving into it."

As he faces forward to a career that includes working with his brother Adam on the adaptation of Andrew Henry's Meadow (a children's book, which he also will exec produce as a film) and being instrumental on the success of choosing his work's soundtracks — "Garden State" won Braff a Grammy for "best compilation soundtrack album/ motion picture, TV or other visual media"; he's also worked closely with director Tony Goldwyn on selections for "The Last Kiss," including songs by good friend Joshua Radin — he looks back, too, on important early influences.

"I feel a connection to God, although I couldn't say I am religious," admits Braff. "I love being Jewish — most of all, I love the Jewish sense of humor."

He's not just humoring a public eager to watch a young Jewish boy/man make menschhood. "As you get older," he allows, "you feel yourself growing into" your past, hailing your heritage.

The future holds growth, too. Even as there is talk that "Scrubs" may be coding blue at the end of its upcoming season — there are also reports it could go on without Braff, who, grateful for the groundbreaking role, has expressed eagerness to catch the next gurney out and move on — there is speculation that Braff may be the next "Fletch," in an expected revival of that sensational sleuth being brought back to the big screen by Bill Lawrence, lifeblood of "Scrubs" as its creator and comic curator since it opened its hi-jinks-inspired hospital doors.

HMO — hottie moving on? The doctor is still in for now, the answer not alighting from his lips. As for those lips and his own "Last Kiss" … gossip-mongers aside, who was the one Braff shared that with?

"No comment," says the gentlemanly Jewish Jersey boy, whose postdoctoral work may bring him an even bigger degree of fame. 



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