In the ten years since its release, Zach Braff’s debut “Garden State” has gone from Sundance darling to sleeper hit to pop culture pariah. The film still has its fans but the opposition seems to have grown louder, as every stylistic tic and soundtrack-cue has become a subject of easy derision. Between that film’s cooling reputation and the outcry when Braff turned to Kickstarter to help with funding for his latest, the actor-turned-filmmaker has faced the kind of backlash normally reserved for actor-directors who steal their source material and apologize with skywriting. Which is a shame, because Braff seems like a good dude and, like him or not, you can’t argue that his sensibility hasn’t connected with a lot of people. During the first 30 minutes or so of “Wish I Was Here,” the actor/director/writer’s long awaited follow-up to “Garden State,” I was fully prepared to toss my cred out the window and admit that, while it won’t win back his haters, dammit it works. Unfortunately, after a brisk and engaging first act, the film becomes bogged down by an overabundance of subplots and increasingly maudlin dramatic turns that threaten to sink the entire affair.
Braff plays Aidan Bloom, an L.A.-based 30-something husband, father, out-of-work actor, non-practicing Jew, son and brother, and if you think that descriptor packs in a lot of stuff, so does the film. Aidan is reaching a crisis point in his life (presumably whatever comes between quarter and mid-life) and a confluence of events—illness, financial strains—force him to re-evaluate everything. As an actor, he’s not willing to admit that his time may have passed him by, leaving months between gigs, and his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), to provide for the family. When his father (Mandy Patinkin) gets sick, he can no longer afford to send his kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) to a private Hebrew school, and decides to homeschool them for the remainder of the semester, though things do not go as planned. But, compared to his brother, Noah (Josh Gad, playing a Josh Gad type again), Aidan is a hero. Noah is the fuck-up of the two, a blogger who is introduced randomly trolling the internet (“@mileycyrus: Eat a bag of dicks”) and, by contrast, he makes Aidan look like the responsible one.
Though the synopsis may read like “Garden State: 10 Years Later,” “Wish I Was Here” does establish its own identity. Gone (for the most part) are the mannered quirks of his debut, and tonally it’s much brighter with Braff’s character much closer to his lively “Scrubs” persona than the depressive at the heart of his last film. Carried over are some clever visual gags (an empty pamphlet container at the hospital that reads: “This pamphlet could save your life”) and a well-curated, indie-pop soundtrack (featuring songs by Badly Drawn Boy, Bon Iver and Band Of Horses) which unfortunately becomes a crutch standing in for the emotions of the film, particularly as it enters its sagging midsection and even more lumbering third act. The problems begin ironically when Braff is offscreen and the film begins to pile on secondary threads involving a furry (Ashley Greene) and her romance with Aidan’s brother Noah, and his wife Sarah being sexually harassed by a co-worker and realizing she doesn’t love her job.
Aidan re-enters the picture for a pair of emotional scenes with his estranged brother and father, and the wheels start to come off what had been a somewhat breezy tale about a married guy with kids who finally learns to grow up. Though you can’t fault Braff for his ambition—he’s taking big swings here—he tries to pack too much into this film, and not all of it works. The screenplay (by Braff and his brother Adam) asks big questions, wrestles with faith and family, features tearful emotional beats next to silly comic moments and sci-fi daydream interludes, but, as you can probably tell, the film bites off more than it can chew and eventually sinks under its own weight
“Wish I Was Here” is not a total disaster, but the tricky tone seems like it needed more time in the editing room to focus its story and trim some of the extraneous threads. Braff has natural comic timing as both an actor and a filmmaker, but a less sure hand with drama and pacing. At almost two hours, the film feels every minute of it, building to a climax that basically amounts to the platitude “being a father is really hard.” The film has already found its fans here at Sundance, but we suspect its outside appeal may be limited if some pruning isn’t done. That’s not to say that there aren’t some pleasures to be found within—Joey King really kills it here as Braff’s young daughter, and the film’s dealing openly with questions about modern Jewish faith and identity is remarkably rare in cinema—and Braff, for all his knocks, is still a filmmaker with a very specific point of view. Like one of Braff’s cinematic heroes Cameron Crowe, whose misfire “Elizabethtown” bears some of the same problems as this film, you may admire the film for its fearlessness (any film that interrupts a scene of furries fucking for a serious, dramatic moment is to be admired), but sincerity alone cannot save it. [C-]