Zach Braff has all the deep feels, and he knows only one way to express them: by crawling out in front of a camera and setting his iPod to shuffle. Ten years after Garden State launched his filmmaking career, the former sitcom star has finally written and directed another movie, this one even gooier than the last. It’s chicken soup for The Shins-loving soul—a group-hug of a film, featuring precocious moppets, deathbed farewells, and cathartic, hair-in-the-wind joyrides set to the best indie rock of 2006. To balance out the barrage of schmaltz, Braff also packs in jokes about dog piss, Furries, and Segway-riding rabbis, and he further communicates his aging-hipster ennui through heavily symbolic sci-fi fantasy sequences.
Wish I Was Here, in other words, is a film that begs to be loved but practically demands to be loathed, especially considering how Braff financed it using the hard-earned cash of his fans. (Was the Aston Martin test-drive scene strictly necessary?) To not choke on this egregiously sentimental passion project requires a supreme tolerance for preciousness, as well as an ability to see past the affectations to the big existential questions that Braff is sincerely attempting to tackle. For better or for worse—okay, mostly for worse—he’s made the exact film he wanted to make; it just took him some time, and a lot of charity, to get the earnest thing off the ground.
Discontent, it would seem, is Braff’s primary interest as a filmmaker. Here he’s simply traded the confusion of post-graduate existence for an acknowledgement that life doesn’t necessarily get easier once you’ve settled down and started a family. The Scrubs alum plays Aidan, a struggling Los Angeles actor (what else?) whose world is turned upside down when his father (Mandy Patinkin, breathing emotional truth into every scene he occupies) 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 enriching fence-fixing lessons. Meanwhile, Aidan’s wife (Kate Hudson), the overtaxed breadwinner of the family, endures sexual harassment at work, while his slacker-genius 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 at least has the feel of something personal—a sense of specificity that the more generic Garden State lacked. Braff, who wrote the film with his brother, is wrestling with actual issues: the search for epiphanies when life doesn’t make sense, the sting of not living up to potential, the difficulty of knowing when to give up on dreams for the sake of family. The major problem here is that Braff seems completely incapable of distinguishing between pathos and bathos. For every affecting heart-to-heart, like a meaningful moonlight chat between husband and wife, there’s an unbearably maudlin moment—as when, for example, the kids hand their dying grandfather miner goggles so he can find his deceased wife in the intense white glow of heaven. Steel your gag reflex, because there’s more treacle where that came from.
Looser, stylistically speaking, than its color-coded predecessor, Wish I Was Here is essentially Braff’s This Is 40, with all the self-indulgence and only a smidgeon of the honest insight such a comparison suggests. The project was conceived a decade ago, and then shopped around for years; one gets the distinct impression that the script has remained largely unchanged in the time since, Braff preserving every one of his (mostly misguided) ideas in an attempt to be true to his vision. One can admire such refusal to compromise, at least in theory. But it’s hard not to conclude that a big, bad studio might actually have shaped the filmmaker’s gushing sentiments into a better movie. At the very least, someone could have advised him to cool it with the wall-to-wall music. Nothing dates a film faster than scoring it like a Believer compilation.