Zach Braff’s new film, Wish I Was Here, is as wishy-washy and slapped together as its (supposedly intentional) grammatically incorrect title. While it may start out reasonably tolerable, with some interesting banter between Braff and his two kids (well played by Joey King and Pierce Gagnon), after about a half hour or so it starts to meander. It piles on one new character after another, overloading the preciousness and meditative Braff tendencies to the point where it’s hard to care about anything that’s happening. The film ends up feeling much, much longer than its 2 hour running time, and then suddenly it ends, without wrapping up a single one of its story lines in a satisfying way.
Braff made a real name for himself in the indie film world about ten years ago with Garden State. It came out in my area only days before I was to embark on my first day of college, which gave the film a poignancy that few others were likely able to experience. Most people appreciated its quirky dialogue, its pointless but amusing artful images, and Natalie Portman’s manic-pixie dream girl character, and I count myself amongst its fans. It definitely reeks of a pretentiousness, as Braff put his character in nearly every scene and was clearly creating a character inspired by his own life. And while its strives towards being our generation’s version of The Graduate were certainly overreaching, I couldn’t help but love it. Its flaws almost made it work better for me, because it inspired me to feel like it was something I could create as well. Today, partially thanks to a countless barrage of imitators it inspired, its flaws are far more apparent. But I still hold a certain amount of fondness towards it. If nothing else, at least due to my fond memories of watching it with my recently graduated high school friends.
I was expecting Wish I Was Here to at least have as much charm as that. I figured it would be filled to the brim with more silly, overambitious poetic imagery, and memorable music sequences. And while I knew it would be flawed, I figured it would at least achieve that level of charm. I was very surprised to find that it doesn’t even reach that level. Very long stretches end up feeling like a straightforward Lifetime family drama, at best. And when Braff isn’t repeating the Garden State formula of feeling lost in his failing ambitions as an actor, we’re treated to silly squabbles between he and his deadbeat brother (Josh Gad), his wildly overly patient wife, and cameos from Garden State/Scrubs actors that feel shoehorned in for no reason other than to satisfy his hardcore fans. His Scrubs co-star Donald Faison shows up as a car-dealer in a scene that couldn’t possibly feel more out of place. It easily could have been dropped and I can’t imagine anything would have changed. If you’re going to put your friend in the movie, please at least give him something remotely interesting to do.
I enjoyed the film most when Braff is interacting with his kids. The scenes were definitely sitcom-ish, but there was a life to them that most of the rest of the film didn’t have. And I have to wonder why they didn’t get more screen time. I feel like if they had dropped the brother character, dropped Kate Hudson’s character and her useless story of being sexually harassed by her douche bag cubicle partner, and gotten rid of all of these intolerable fantasy sequences (I won’t even describe them here, except to say if this is where most of the Kickstarter money went, those who donated should be very upset), and focused on his relationship with his children, we could have had something here. As it turns out, the film jumps to so many different places and never gives enough attention to any of them. It’s as if Braff had ideas for five different movies in his head and couldn’t figure out how to separate them. There were also a surprising number of scenes where Braff was absent. That’s an advance, as this was hardly the case with Garden State, but it only further emphasized just how underwritten the other characters were.
Mandy Patinkin shows up as Braff’s dying father, which inspires him to get himself together and provide for his family. He has some nice scenes here and there. But again, not enough development for us to truly care because there’s too much else going on. As we’re treated to such “hilarious” moments as a dog peeing in a ton of inappropriate places, a rabbi crashing a Segway, Josh Gad having sex with a girl in a bear costume, and Braff carrying a giant swear jar full of money everywhere he goes, one gets the feeling we’re watching an episode from the terrible later years of Scrubs, only without the benefit of speedy sitcom pacing. Seriously, I’ll buy anything when it comes to films I watch, but I did not buy for a moment that Braff would actually carry around the entire swear jar, rather than take a few bucks out and put them in his pocket.
I hope we don’t have to wait another ten years for Braff to make another movie. The guy does have a certain amount of charisma to his acting and flair to his direction that doesn’t seem to be present in anyone else in Hollywood. If he could get away from the overreaching family drama, and maintain the personal focus that he had with Garden State, I’d be glad to see another film of his. Maybe if he does another film soon enough, within 3 years or so, he won’t have so many extraneous ideas piling up and we’ll feel like we’re watching one movie, with one story that we can really connect to. If you love Garden State (as I begrudgingly do), I can’t imagine this review will stop you from seeing Wish I Was Here, but I can almost guarantee you’ll be disappointed.
Grade – C-