I hated Garden State when it came out. I detested its cutesy preciousness, its 10-cent spiritual wisdom, its general air of being pleased with itself, its unearned oh-wow-the-world-is-so-beautiful mysticism. Despite all that, I saw in first-time director Zach Braff a talented filmmaker with an ear for music, a gift for striking visuals, and a neat sense of comic timing. Ten years have passed between that movie and his second one, Wish I Was Here, and Braff is now 39. There was reason to hope that his new film would be a stronger piece of work, allying his brilliance to a more mature sensibility.
Guess what, though? No such luck. This annoyingly callow dramedy is so much like its predecessor that it should have been called Golden State, especially given its California setting. Any hopes for a more hard-headed outlook are dispelled by the film’s opening lines, “When we were kids, my brother and I used to pretend that we were heroes, the only ones who could save the day. But maybe we’re just the regular people, the ones who get saved.”
Those lines are spoken by Braff’s Aidan Bloom, a struggling Hollywood actor who’s tired of depending on his wife (Kate Hudson) to financially support their family. One day, his cranky, devoutly Jewish dad Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) drops the news that his cancer has not only recurred but is probably terminal. Among other things, this means that Aidan has to not-so-reluctantly pull his children — 12-year-old Grace (Joey King) and 6-year-old Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) — out of the yeshiva that Gabe can no longer pay for. Rather than stick them in an unfamiliar public school in the middle of the school year, Aidan decides to home-school his kids until the summer.
Braff’s flair for comedy remains strong as ever. Among the treats he gives us are an ancient Orthodox rabbi grimly motoring on a Segway scooter around a hospital’s corridors and Aidan sitting forlornly in a room full of auditioning actors, the only white guy in a room full of older black men. There’s a wonderfully economical sight gag in a hospital waiting room, where Aidan notes with alarm a plastic holder emblazoned with the words “This pamphlet could save your life,” currently standing empty. His first day home-schooling his kids predictably is a disaster, yet Braff (as both director and actor) skillfully builds up the frustration levels until Aidan finally boils over.
Unfortunately, the director’s visual style remains a series of striking but empty flourishes, like the computer graphics superimposed on the garbage outside a trailer as Aidan’s reclusive sci-fi nerd brother Noah (Josh Gad) is inspired to create a costume for Comic-Con. The series of video game-like interludes depicting Aidan as a sword-wielding spaceman with a cute floating drone sidekick on an alien planet builds to a cliché-ridden psychological revelation. When Noah’s neighbor (Ashley Greene) comes over to chew him out about his dog barking, of course she does it while wearing the lower half of a furry mascot costume.
Still, the forced whimsicality isn’t nearly as intolerable as the weepiness that engulfs the last third or so of the movie. Poor Kate Hudson is saddled with the movie’s speechiest speech as she tells Gabe to reconcile with his sons before he dies, and King and Gad share an unendurable phone conversation in which Grace tearfully begs her uncle to see his dad before it’s too late. Gabe has apparently spent a lifetime being a judgmental bastard to his sons, but any complicated emotions they might be feeling are washed away in a flood of cheap waterworks at the end.
It’s true that Aidan is supposed to be something of an arrested-development case, which does contribute to the movie’s overall air of immaturity. Yet the film doesn’t critique him in any meaningful way, even though it has the opportunity through Grace, who is dead-serious about her Judaism when the rest of the family could take religion or leave it. This development goes maddeningly unexplored, and I’m starting to think that Braff has a problem creating believable female characters. Ungrounded by any real emotion, Wish I Was Here evaporates in a cloud of woolly sentimentality and yet another gossamer ballad by The Shins. The pity is, Braff could be a terrific director if he just concentrated on making funny comedies. But no, he wants to tell us the meaning of life. That’s his undoing.
Wish I Was Here
Starring Zach Braff and Kate Hudson. Directed by Zach Braff. Written by Adam and Zach Braff. Rated R.