After exploring twentysomething Millennial malaise in his 2004 hit “Garden State,” Zach Braff shifts his attention to mid-thirties, post-marital anomie in “Wish I Was Here,” a cloying compendium of follow-your-dreams platitudes, new-agey spirituality and mawkish, father-son deathbed bonding that strains so hard to recapture “Garden State’s” calculating but effective blend of whimsy and pathos that it nearly gives itself a hernia. The product of Braff’s much-discussed Kickstarter campaign, “Wish” seems sure to placate die-hard fans of the writer-director-star (who films himself in adoring close-up throughout) while driving others to distraction. Nostalgia for Braff’s debut pic plus Kickstarter-centric buzz should equate to solid niche biz, though perhaps softer than “Garden State’s” $26 million domestic cume.
Having killed off his mother at the start of “Garden State,” Braff builds “Wish” around the impending death of a cancer-stricken patriarch (Mandy Patinkin), whose illness sets off a chain reaction in the life of son Aiden (Braff), a struggling L.A. actor who hasn’t landed even a bit part in years. Though Aiden’s sympathetic wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) holds down a steady job as a water department data cruncher, money is constantly tight for the young couple and their two kids, pre-teen daughter Grace (Joey King) and six-year-old son Tucker (Pierce Gagnon). Both kids are enrolled at a pricey yeshiva school paid for by Aiden’s dad, a conservative Jew who faults his son (among many other things) for straying from his faith. But when dad’s cancer treatments put an even tighter squeeze on everyone’s bank accounts, Aiden is forced to pull the kids out of the yeshiva, leading to a disastrous experiment in home-schooling.
In its broad strokes and more than a few specific details, “Wish I Was Here” recalls Judd Apatow’s recent “This Is 40,” another au courant snapshot of L.A. entertainment-industry types trying to rekindle the spark in their marriage while coping with a sagging economy, aging parents and demanding children. But where nearly everything in Apatow’s film felt messy and lived-in and true (no matter those who accused it of bourgeois hand-wringing), Braff’s movie (co-written by the director and his brother, Adam) rarely seems more than a strained sitcom minus only the laugh track. A running gag about Aiden’s inability to stop cursing in front of the kids (and an accompanying “swear jar” atop the kitchen fridge) feels about a decade past its sell-by date, while gag scenes involving YouTube-watching and Segway-riding rabbis are fourth-rate Woody Allen at best. All of which is still preferable to when Braff shifts into earnest, soul-searching philosophical mode.
At times, Braff’s sophomore feature feels as though he were trying, without a lick of irony, to compress everything people hate about L.A. — and about a certain strain of Sundance-favored indie movies — into one single film. Everyone in “Wish” has some kind of self-absorbed, woe-is-me cross to bear, and you can bet that by the end of an overlong 113 minutes, they’ll all manage to work things out, usually in the course of a slo-mo emo-rock montage sequence, or by standing in the backyard reciting Robert Frost, or by driving out into the desert and sitting on a rock in search of an “epiphany” (at which point, this writer was hoping against hope for an epiphany of the “127 Hours” variety).
Aiden’s layabout brother Noah (Josh Gad), who lives in one of those beachside trailer parks with million-dollar views that only exist in bad L.A. movies, has even bigger daddy issues than Aiden does. (But wait, he’s also a genius!) Meanwhile, Grace finds herself torn between Judaism’s teachings about female modesty and the strange adolescent feelings beginning to course through her body. Even relatively well-adjusted Sarah (the sadly underused Hudson) bemoans the fact that she has to work a dull office job instead of following her own dreams, though the movie never bothers to tell us what those dreams actually are.
Braff and his producers have said that their Kickstarter funds bought them a certain degree of freedom, including the ability to shoot on location in Los Angeles, and final cut for Braff. The result is unquestionably an auteur film, but one festooned with so many bad and unnecessary ideas that one can’t help wondering if a more modest, hemmed-in version of the same project might not have proved more effective. Chief among Braff’s indulgences are a recurring string of fantasy interludes in which Aiden appears as a space-suited action hero pursuing a cloaked villain on the surface of some distant planet. Meant as a manifestation of the character’s unrequited adolescent hero complex, these heavy-handed scenes instead have the doubtless-unintended effect of playing like outtakes from M. Night Shyamalan’s “After Earth.”
Other tech credits are adequate but undistinguished, with “Garden State” d.p. Lawrence Sher’s widescreen shooting notably flatter and less cinematic this time around. Wall-to-wall KCRW-ready soundtrack includes original compositions by James Mercer and Bon Iver. Music credits on print screened in Sundance were not yet final.