'Wish I Was Here'
Ten years and one controversial Kickstarter campaign later, Zach Braff’s mildy anticipated directorial follow-up to ‘Garden State‘ has arrived. His new film highlights all of the strengths and weaknesses of that ode to indie twee in another deeply mediocre movie with hints of something more.
Back when ‘Garden State’ hit theaters in 2004, it was confusing to even consider the concept of Zack Braff as a director. After all, he was the goofy star of the goofy sitcom ‘Scrubs’ who seemed to have no ambitions beyond goofiness. Yet, somehow his check list of Sundance dramedy clichés managed to strike a chord. Part of it was timing, with ‘Garden State’ released in a slow late summer/early fall schedule. Part of it was the soundtrack, which was made to fill then brand new iTunes playlists for lazy listeners. And part of it was the fact that the movie featured two recognizable stars, but still made viewers feel slightly outside the box by going to an indie movie. Any tiny mark that ‘Garden State’ made disappeared before the calendars turned to 2005, and yet somehow there was still a calling for Zach Braff to write and direct a second opus. So much so that he managed to raise three million real dollars from real humans off Kickstarter to pull it off. Well people, you only have yourselves to blame for the mild disappointment that you’ll feel walking out of the theater.
This time, rather than playing a twentysomething semi-employed actor in search of meaning for his life, Braff stretches his skills to star as a thritysomething semi-employed actor in search of meaning for his life. This means that rather than connecting with an impossibly perfect and perky girl, he already has an impossibly perfect and perky wife played by Kate Hudson (who tries really hard to make it seem like she’s portraying something resembling a human being) and two precocious kids. That doesn’t mean Braff isn’t a sad-sack when he isn’t being charmingly befuddled, though! Far from it! He just has to be sad when driving to failed auditions before putting the charmingly befuddled act on at home.
Braff’s character is at a crossroads where the whole “I want to be an actor” thing is looking a bit pathetic while his wife is paying the bills. Then Braff’s father (Mandy Patinkin) reveals that he’s dying from cancer to give Braff’s character just the motivation he needs to go through an uplifting spiritual journey while cracking jokes. Toss in a teenage daughter (Joey King from the ‘Fargo’ TV series) who shaves her head to signify her, like, totally awful teenage problems, and an eccentric estranged brother (Josh Gad) who’s into cosply, and you’ve got yourself a wacky comedy that gets into deep issues about life, man. Plus, don’t forget the astronaut fantasy sequences to make the movie extra QUIRKY!
While ‘Wish I Was Here’ is not a great film, it has to be said that Zach Braff is not without talent. He has a breezy naturalism and undeniable charm as an actor. He’s capable of writing laugh-out-loud jokes as a screenwriter and even has some skill with the camera. The trouble is that he takes himself far too seriously. If Braff only made affable comedies, he’d be an affable filmmaker. Unfortunately, he desperately wants to be taken seriously and considered cool. So he fills his soundtracks with the indie rock equivalent of Adult Contemporary, and fills his screenplays with sweeping beats of drama in an attempt to be more than silly. These qualities are deeply irritating for audiences familiar with the types of movies that Braff clearly wants to make, because he’s so blatantly co-opting easy tricks from past indie movies rather than finding his own voice. Then there’s Braff’s heavy-handed use of metaphors so obvious that you can pick up on them while watching a different movie in a neighboring theater. At times it feels as if the writer/director version of Braff is on a one-man quest to find the world’s most obvious metaphor.
The problems with ‘Wish I Was Here’ are the same problems with ‘Garden State’, only more pronounced. But the strengths are also the same and more pronounced. Whether or not you like the movie will come down entirely to your opinion of Zach Braff, filmmaker. He’s made no attempt to change or grow as a director, and that’s really a shame. If he could somehow just stop the parts of his brain that desperately want to be considered an artiste and focus on creating a slight and funny movie, he might actually deliver something worthwhile. Whether or not that will ever happen will only be revealed when the next Kickstarter campaign appears, I suppose.