The flaw in Zach Braff’s beloved debut “Garden State” was its naiveté; an emotionally bankrupt young man is spiritually resuscitated by a daffy, darling young miss a bit too easily, but it had a good heart and a good soundtrack. The plot of Braff’s latest, “Wish I Was Here,” is just about the same, but the flaw is different, and much less easy to forgive. A mean streak runs down the middle of this movie, and Braff does not wear it well.
Braff wrote, directed and stars as a wanna-be actor living in California with his wife (Kate Hudson) and two children. The central conflict becomes the question of whether he should continue to pursue his frankly questionable and not particularly noble dream while his wife supports the family and his kids have to drop out of their private school when his father can no longer pay for it because he has cancer.
So the whole question of the film is basically lame, and the answer is clearly “No.” It’s just hard to root for his petulant man-child, even when he agrees — reluctantly might I add — to homeschool his poor kids and this leads to various cinematically pleasing but scholastically iffy montages.
It’s not often that you find yourself saying that Kate Hudson carries the emotional weight of a project, but that just shows you how slight the whole business is. I’m sure her parents are really proud of an emotional scene she plays with the dying father. Fortunately, Mandy Patinkin plays the cancer-stricken father, and I can’t think of any project not improved by his presence. He has a very sage beard.
So the ordeal of saying goodbye to his father kind of improves Braff’s character, and he sort of tries to grow up but he won’t stop referring to acting as his “dream,” and it’s just very annoying. His younger brother is even more emotionally stunted and described as — although not demonstrated to be — a genius. He hates their dad and we’re in suspense as to whether he’ll agree to visit his deathbed.
“Wish I Was Here” could have been a forgettable but watchable trifle, but Braff tried to ratchet up the edginess and ended up with a weird and unpleasant character. Sophomore slump hit this crowdfunded film, but hopefully Braff has exorcised these redundant story lines and characters.
I often find with a second movie or, especially, a book, that it’s a less successful version of the breakthrough hit, like the creator is rushing to cash in on success by mining earlier, less effective efforts. But Braff really shouldn’t make any more films about a struggling actor; I think he’s said all he has to say on the subject. I don’t know if this was meant to be a satire of a self-obsessed male, or if he really is that self-obsessed and couldn’t tell. It would be so amusing to find out.