To be a film’s screenwriter, director and lead actor is to be its G-d. It’s not an easy feat to pull off. And yet, Zach Braff has now attempted it twice in 10 years; first with his directorial debut Garden State (2004) and now with Wish I Was Here, co-written with his brother, notably crowd-financed (sort of) and getting a limited release this weekend/a wide release next.
The divine metaphor extends beyond Braff’s work on the silver screen: On Scrubs, which was on for what seemed like an eternity (2001 to 2010) and has found its Second Coming in syndication, he played an ER doctor, who weekly had other people’s lives in his hands. All the while, he was sculpting and perfecting his “Adam”—that post-9/11 “normal guy” character—sort of a dork, sort of an emotional wreck, sometimes annoying, but most of the time, pretty endearing.
His “Eve” would come in the Edenically titled, Garden State, when he unknowingly invented what would become known as the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”—Natalie Portman’s Shins-worshipping character. Not to mention putting together a hallelujah chorus for the ages in its Grammy-winning soundtrack.
Nobody has enough money or a job they can enjoy. Swear words get yelled, dramatically, into the air, with double fists clenched. Woe is me.
As he did with Garden, Braff casts Wish I Was Here as part family dramedy and emo-dork caper—featuring tons of big life lessons gilded with religious references and humor aplenty (mostly of a Jewish nature, which may fly over some non-Jewish viewers’ heads). But whereas Garden’s plot was halfway believable and Braff’s character decently get-behindable, the Wish pill is much more difficult to swallow.
The film finds Aidan Bloom (Braff), a tough-luck actor married to a luckless cubicle worker, Sarah (Kate Hudson), who has two affable kids (the unwitting victims of Aidan’s bad luck), and a down-on-his-luck younger brother (Josh Gad). See the pattern? And then there’s the sick-and-getting-worse father (Mandy Patinkin), who’s sort of a dick, doesn’t have a good relationship with Aidan’s younger brother, and has quickly become Aidan’s problem. Nobody has enough money or a job they can enjoy. Swear words get yelled, dramatically, into the air, with double fists clenched. Woe is me. The thematic obstacles are in such great number that it becomes a struggle to pull for a single character—something dramedies all but require—or see a light at the end of the tunnel.
On a brief positive note, the soundtrack is once again stellar, but it seems more of a crutch to emotional dullness than expertly picked background noise. (Bon Iver’s “Holocene” playing was one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.) And there are issues aplenty with the movie’s authenticity. Braff, a successful actor in real life, has trouble pulling off a struggling one—and an even tougher time interacting with an even more successful one in real life, the Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, who poorly plays a fellow struggler.
Hudson will always be the groupie chick from Almost Famous, so Braff’s attempt at molding her into a normal everywife fails miserably. It’s much more difficult watching her reading lines into a camera—instead of blowing them backstage off a mirror.
The brother character, Noah, is largely inconsistent, too; his thematic arc sort of flatlines out of the gates and doesn’t really crest until the last 30 minutes of the movie, during which you have to watch him fuck a girl in a plush costume while wearing a spacesuit (we can’t make this shit up).
While Patinkin is nearly impossible to waste in any setting, you have to wonder what he was thinking choosing this flick as his next big artistic vehicle. Maybe he doesn’t want to be typecast as the gruff Saul from Homeland after that candle dies down?
Oh, and did we mention the Hudson/Braff a cappella duet of a particularly cheesy James Taylor song? All of this got our Gigli Senses tingling.
Some true-believers might not want to admit this, but sometimes even G-d Himself fucks up.