By Eric Kohn | Indiewire January 21, 2014 at 11:52AM
"I want to make more movies like 'Garden State.' I mean, Woody Allen was my hero. He's someone who, in his heyday, in the era of his films that I love the most, was making movies that were just taking the social temperature of his group of people in New York City, and I'd like to make more movies like that for people my age."
—Zach Braff, 2004
A decade has passed since actor-writer-director Zach Braff made the above declaration in an Indiewire interview at the Sundance Film Festival. Despite his idealism, Braff wouldn't succeed at directing another feature for a full 10 years, but his wish finally reached its completion this past week at the Sundance Film Festival, with the world premiere of "Wish I Was Here," the widely documented Kickstarter-backed comedy in which he also stars.
Now almost 40, Braff remains a Sundance darling: "Wish I Was Here," an excessively sentimental, eagerly goofy by-the-books dramedy about midlife anxieties and suburban discontent, landed a sizable deal with Focus Features shortly after its premiere — not unlike the swift process by which "Garden State" was picked up in a joint arrangement with Miramax and Fox Searchlight 10 years ago.
"Garden State" instigated immediate cult-like worship followed by the inevitable backlash to its capricious humor in the ensuing years. Yet while that movie was an easy target for cynical takedowns, "Wish I Was Here" is begging for it in a different way: While it generated several months' worth of headlines about Braff's crowdfunding approach, the resulting movie is far more forgettable than its production history. Littered with delicate pop songs, goofy one-liners and broad caricatures, "Wish I Was Here" stars Braff as struggling actor and deadbeat dad Aidan Bloom, a one-note Woody Allen knock-off adrift in a sea of sitcom clichés: While his good-natured wife (Kate Hudson) urges him to find a real job and struggles with her own soulless office job, Aiden copes with the news that smarmy father (Mandy Patinkin) has cancer and can no longer afford to pay his grandkids' Jewish school tuition.
Frustrated with the school's unsympathetic faculty, Aiden decides to home school his kids with chaotic results, and makes vain attempts at getting his estranged, out-of-work brother (Josh Gad) to make amends with their ailing dad. Despite the flashes of amusing vulgarities and an overarching sadness to the scenario, "Wish I Was Here" constantly strains from its grating focus on a rudimentary soul-searching plot and sophomoric mainstream humor. Despite his stated aspirations in 2004, Braff hasn't made another generational statement, but rather a regurgitation of tropes that got old a long time ago.
Which isn't to say it lacks a few good punchlines -- meandering, lazy punchlines. The nebbishy Aiden's constant banter with his two young kids (at one point, one of them confuses Al Roker with Al Qaida) shows the extent to which he has failed as a responsible parent in amusingly over the top terms, as does his decision to spark a joint in the parking lot after dropping them off for school. But Aiden's personal yearning reeks of obviousness, particularly when Braff illustrates them with constant Walter Mitty-like fantasies in which Aiden imagines himself as a science fiction hero.
The looming threat of Aidan's father's illness leads to a few admittedly touching bedside exchanges, and the attempts by Aiden's older daughter (McKaley Miller) to take charge of her family's problems has an inspiring quality that stands out. But "Wish I Was Here" mainly goes through the motions with a copy-and-paste story about coming to terms with responsibility that suggests Braff would have done well to crowdsource the idea along with his budget.
To be fair, Braff never deserved the extreme backlash to his well-publicized Kickstarter campaign, which at the very least allowed the filmmaker to prove he's got a sufficient fan base that validates his filmmaking career. Yet the publicity allotted to this particular success could have better served for far stronger movies. Snatched up in a lucrative deal by Focus Features in its first big acquisition after the departure of company founder and noted aesthete James Schamus, "I Wish I Was Here" points to the company's evident shift toward catering to the lowest common denominator of mainstream sensibilities. No less than when "Garden State" premiered, the most commercially obvious product threatens to soak up all the attention. So goes the marketplace.
The same day that the Braff film premiered, Ira Sachs' delicate New York drama "Love Is Strange" screened to great acclaim but no similarly eager buyers. A true discovery of Sundance's NEXT section, the black-and-white "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" resurrects an early eighties indie sensibility with its evocative portrait of an Iranian town haunted by an elusive vampire. Audiences loved it; buyers have been puzzled. Another seemingly marketable dramedy with likeminded insight into urban loneliness, "Appropriate Behavior," has gone largely ignored by the industry. Deep-pocked distributed scramble to find the next pre-packaged, super-sized product.
In that regard, you can't do better than Zach Braff, whose latest work may as well have been produced by Judd Apatow. Braff may have expressed a creative urge to tell stories for his generational peers, but his unadventurous sensibilities actually engender a commercial frenzy. By the end of the festival's first weekend, Braff was crowned the marketplace king again. "Wish I Was Here" surely satisfies its fan base, but they ought to consider some better options. Sadly, no Kickstarter campaign has the power to alter a marketplace only committed to the safest bets.
Criticwire Grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Commercial prospects are reasonably high for the film given its existing support, although it's unlikely to reach "Garden State" heights of popularity.