Sundance 2014, Day Three: Zach Braff still feels stuff

Sundance 2014, Day Three: Zach Braff still feels stuff

Zach Braff has all the deep feels and he wants us to know about them. His new film, Wish I Was Here (Grade: C+), screened yesterday afternoon in Park City, a decade almost to the day after his last film, Garden State, premiered at Sundance 2004. If the film can be believed, the years have turned the former sitcom star even mushier. This is a real group hug of a movie: There are precocious moppets, dying loved ones, and cathartic, hair-in-the-wind joyrides set to the best indie rock of 2006. To balance out all that schmaltz, Braff also includes jokes about Internet porn, Furries, and dog piss, and he further communicates his pushing-40 ennui through poorly conceived sci-fi fantasy sequences.

Wish I Was Here, in other words, is a film that practically begs to be hated, especially after considering Braff financed it using the hard-earned cash of his fans. Yet for all for its shortcomings, especially the cringe-worthy Very Special Moments that seem to arrive every other scene, I couldn’t quite bring myself to hate the film—possibly because it seems, in its sometimes embarrassing way, like an honest attempt to grapple with something real. Garden State didn’t caome across as far less honest; there, Braff seemed to be playing the idea of a confused twentysomething, and expecting his Pitchfork-esque soundtrack to do the emotional heavy lifting. Wish I Was Here, which the actor wrote with his brother Adam, suffers from its predecessor’s preciousness, but the sentiments feel less canned. Having seen the movie, I can almost understand Braff’s insistence on getting it made his way (albeit with the public’s dollars): For better or for worse, he’s made the exact film he wanted to make.

Essentially, Wish I Was Here is Braff’s This Is 40—but I don’t mean that as a slam, at least not entirely. The Scrubs alum plays Aidan, a struggling Los Angeles actor (yes, that again) whose life is thrown into disarray when his father (a typically terrific Mandy Patinkin) is diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Because Grandpa can no longer afford the tuition, the kids (Pierce Gagnon and talented up-and-comer Joey King, from The Conjuring and White House Down) have to be pulled out of their posh Jewish private school; Aidan opts to home-school them, leading to soul-searching field trips to the California desert and fence-fixing lessons. Meanwhile, Aidan’s wife (Kate Hudson) endures sexual harassment at work, while his brother (Josh Gad) refuses to make amends with their dying father, who’s never been shy about expressing how disappointed he is with his underachieving sons.

Whether all of this material is pulled from actual family history or completely invented, it has the feel of memoir—a sense of specificity that Garden State lacked. Braff is wrestling with actual issues: the search for epiphanies when life doesn’t make sense, the sting of not living up to your potential, the difficulty of knowing when to give up your dreams for the sake of your family. The problem with Wish I Was Here is that Braff can’t seem to differentiate between pathos and bathos: For every affecting heart-to-heart, there’s an unbearably maudlin speech. Had he simply made the movie through the studio system, taking the notes of the execs fronting the bill, the results might have worked a little better. But I have a begrudging admiration for the movie’s earnestness, one that at least partially stifled my gag-reflex. (That said, Braff’s iPod-shuffle approach to scoring a movie deserves all the contempt it will receive.)

As far as follies go, I much preferred Wish I Was Here to Mike Cahill’s I Origins (Grade: C-), a hokey reason-vs.-faith parable whose supreme obviousness begins with its punny title. (It’s about eyes, see.) The best that can said for the movie, about a scientist (Michael Pitt) looking to disprove intelligent design by tracing the evolution of iris patterns, is that it doesn’t reduce its sci-fi conceit to window-dressing, as Cahill’s earlier Another Earth did. But the filmmaker’s plotting is still deeply simplistic: Once you’ve solved the mystery, there’s little to do but wait for Pitt’s stubborn rationalist—whose certainty, the film helpfully, constantly reminds, is another form of dogma—to catch up. This is arted-up twist cinema at its most self-important, building to an ending that’s designed to blow minds but doesn’t pack any of the emotional wallop it should.

More successful, though not entirely so, was Jake Paltrow’s futuristic Dust Bowl oater, Young Ones (Grade: C+), which has stylish throwback affectation to burn, but precious little in the way of actual drama. Set on a scorched, post-apocalyptic Earth in which water has become both the primary energy resource and (as a result) dangerously scarce, the movie casts Michael Shannon as a hardened farmer, Elle Fanning and Kodi Smit-McPhee as his children, and Nicholas Hoult as a young rival with designs on the hero’s land. Paltrow, younger brother of Gwyneth, cultivates an impressive, vaguely retro aesthetic—there’s lots of orange on this orange planet—and includes such nifty touches as a staggering, bug-like mechanical horse. But the actors are playing archetypes in search of characters, and the plot, detrimentally chopped into three chapters, never gains any urgency. Were we still living in an age filthy with big-screen Westerns, Young Ones would disappear quickly into the dust and wind. It still might.

The best film I saw on this day of fantasies and flights of fancy was explicitly about imagination: Blind ( Grade: B+), the directorial debut of Norwegian screenwriter Eskil Vogt, chronicles the daily routine of a writer (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) who’s recently gone blind, spending the long hours her husband is at work holed-up in her apartment. That may sound like a claustrophobic drag, but Vogt splits the running time between his depressed heroine and the characters she’s invented. He wisely plays transparent with his gimmick, rather than using it for a big final reveal, and has great fun revising the narratives within the narrative, sometimes mid-scene. Vogt co-wrote Joachim Trier’s Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, and while he doesn’t quite possess Trier’s kinetic energy and raw talent behind the camera, his work here proves that those triumphs owe much of their vulnerability and candor to their author.      

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