Think back with me to the wilds of 2004, when Zach Braff – at the height of his Scrubs powers – wrote and directed a little movie called Garden State. The film, about a disaffected actor who returns to New Jersey to bury his mother, was a success both critically and financially, and seemed to signal the beginning of a filmmaking career for the sitcom star. Now, ten years later (almost to the week), Braff’s sophomore effort, Wish I Was Here – about a disaffected actor who has to deal with the prospect of burying his father – has finally seen the light of day.
Aidan Bloom (Braff) and his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), struggle to figure out what to do with their children (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) in the wake of learning that Aidan’s father, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), can no longer pay tuition for their private school education. Saul has been diagnosed with cancer, and his pursuit of a radical treatment forces Aidan and his brother, Noah (Josh Gad), to be more present in their own lives.
As has been a trend this year (with Bad Words and Fading Gigolo), actor-directors continue to coax really strong performances out of their cast. Hudson and Patinkin are as good as one ought to expect, but Braff also manages to get an incredibly well-reasoned and restrained turn from Gad, who is often too big for his own good. Even the child actors are emotive without ever being creepy.
Unfortunately Braff’s script (co-written with his brother, Adam) is not nearly as nuanced. Almost every line is written to be the most profound statement ever uttered, often involving Braff’s Aidan entreating others to follow their dreams or to be true to themselves. It’s especially frustrating because Aidan is not a very likable guy. He is astonishingly self-absorbed – to an extent I didn’t think possible once one becomes a parent. Throughout the film he is persecuted for actively pursuing his dream of being an actor, but these criticisms being lodged his way are often pretty valid. Everything that happens, including his father’s diagnosis, is pitched from the perspective of how it makes Aidan’s life worse.
And Aidan’s perspective is our perspective, which gets troubling at times. Aidan is a classic self-loathing Jew, but rather than portraying his main character as charmingly self-deprecating, he chooses instead to, at times, vilify the Orthodox Rabbis that run his children’s school. It’s oddly anti-Semitic, in a way that is reminiscent of the same problem in Fading Gigolo.
Despite the script’s many, many faults, I cannot deny that Wish I Was Here is a funny movie. I audibly laughed several times throughout the film, particularly at one inspired bit of physical comedy involving an elderly man on a Segway. This is one lesson Braff seems to have learned.
It may be the only lesson, however. I’ll readily admit that I liked Garden State upon its release ten years ago. I was 14 years old, and probably not in the target demographic, but I was a huge Scrubs fan. Braff’s brooding intellectualism hit with me then. Here’s the thing: I grown up a lot over the intervening ten years, and I don’t necessarily think that Braff has. His main character is a little more real and mature, but Wish I Was Here is not.
If you liked Garden State… well I still hesitate to recommend Wish I Was Here. Here’s what I do recommend: drive to my family home in Annapolis, Maryland and borrow my sister’s long-abandoned Garden State DVD. Give it a rewatch and then return the DVD (it’s not my place to give it to you, though I doubt my sister would miss it). On your drive home I want you to really think about your feelings regarding Braff’s directorial debut. If you’re still on board, give Wish I Was Here a watch – it’s pretty similar (just replace The Shins with poetry). If you no longer like Garden State, well you shouldn’t need me to tell you what to do. You seem to know what you like and what you don’t like so just movie on with your newly Braff-less life. If you’re just so-so on Garden State, maybe wait until the spiritual sequel is more readily available for less money. The performances and comedy don’t redeem the film, but they may keep you from feeling like you completely wasted two hours. You’ll just feel like you mostly wasted them.