Zach Braff’s second directorial effort, Wish I Was Here, reminded me of all the reasons why I loved his debut film, Garden State. It also reiterated a few of the reasons cynical audiences reject the types of stories Braff wants to tell.
Braff has developed a distinct style. Some of it was formed by his multi-year run on the quirky, smarter-than-average sitcom Scrubs. The rest can be attributed to Braff’s ear as a screenwriter. If 2004’s Garden State plugged into the malaise of twentysomethings trying to figure out their post-collegiate path, then Wish I Was Here wonders what those same folks are doing 10 years later, now that they have gotten married, started families, yet still wrestle with professional uncertainty and personal dissatisfaction.
Braff plays Aidan, a struggling actor who has a beautiful wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), and two wonderful kids. He’d kill for steady work as a performer, but he’s chasing his dream, with his wife’s (tentative) support. Aidan’s biggest conflict traces back to his father, Gabe, who is dying from a cancer that has returned, in earnest. Gabe’s illness has everyone reflecting on their place in life – from Aidan’s intelligent daughter, Grace (Joey King), to his immature, self-centered younger brother, Noah (Josh Gad).
Back when he was lobbying for Kickstarter help (an act that still draws ire from fervent Braff detractors), Braff described Wish I Was Here as a sequel, in spirit, to Garden State. It’s clear to see why. Once again, the writer-director uses an open-ended screenplay to begin a dialogue about how powerless we often are when facing life’s obstacles, no matter the size. Gabe’s cancer certainly casts the largest shadow over all of the characters in Wish I Was Here, and the film’s most effective scenes take place between Mandy Patinkin and the rest of Braff’s cast – primarily because Patinkin can handle pretty much anything you ask of him. He condescendingly judges every move his eldest son makes. He tests Sarah, to see if she really can lead this family after he has died. He opens up his heart for his prodigal child, Noah, when the bumbling fool returns for a last-minute reunion. Patinkin elevates each and every one of these conflicts by delivering an awards-worthy performance in Braff’s touching melodrama. Focus needs to stash a little cash away for a late-year awards push, because Patinkin deserves to be in that conversation.
If anything, Braff takes on too many issues, though, and it weighs Wish I Was Here down by dangling at least a half-dozen problems that rush to get resolved. Grace has multiple coming-of-age quandaries, from the cute boy who wants to invite her to a swimming party to her father’s new plan to home school. Sarah contends with a sexist pig at work – which leads to an unlikely confrontation between Aidan and this jerk in a supermarket. Braff’s point might be that, for regular people, problems like these often stack up and cause us to feel overwhelmed. Wish I Was Here frequently feels overwhelmed by all that it’s trying to do, as well.
Part of it might be that Braff caught us off guard with his distinct voice in Garden State. His spot-on observations about a specific generation’s hopes and fears connected with audiences. Plus, he had the perfect selection of gentle pop staples on his soundtrack to back up his stinging truths. We know what to listen for in Wish I Was Here, though, so the revelations in the screenplay (credited to Braff and his brother, Adam), are a little less earth-shattering, and a little more generic.
“If there’s a next time, I’ll do better.” That line is uttered at a pivotal moment, and it lingered in my head as I mulled over Wish I Was Here days later. Braff is a talented filmmaker with a lot to say to like-minded adults. He observes the difficult roads people his age must maneuver, and his narratives can connect. He had to lobby hard to be able to make Wish I Was Here, though, because studios don’t willingly fund introspective, mildly amusing comedies from TV stars with built-in audiences. That’s a shame, because Braff needs to do this often so that he can improve. There’s fat to trim off of Wish I Was Here. There’s whimsy that could have landed on the cutting room floor. Braff would realize that, if he were cranking out reflective melodramas like this once every other year, instead of once every other decade.