If I were one of the generous and optimistic contributors to Zach Braff’s Kickstarter campaign to fund Wish I Was Here, I’d ask for my money back. All of it. Even the most ardent fans of Braff’s first feature film, the charming Garden State, will struggle to warm up to this self-indulgent, uninvolving drama about an immature, almost-middle-aged guy trying to find himself with questions he should have had answers to long ago.
Garden State was about an emotionally remote twentysomething actor (played by Braff) who returns home from Los Angeles after his mother’s death, quits taking his meds and allows himself to feel at last. Fast forward 10 years, and that guy could have grown into Wish I Was Here’s Aidan Bloom (also played by Braff), a failed actor who goes on auditions but rarely gets parts. He never does anything useful around the house, preferring to sponge off his wife (Kate Hudson in the ever-popular and thankless supportive wife role), who works at a job she loathes, and his father (Mandy Patinkin), who pays to send Aidan’s two kids to private school.
The film’s crisis erupts when Aidan learns his dad can’t afford to pay for the yeshiva anymore and that his kids might have to attend public school (that Braff apparently thinks this is an epic disaster indicates how out of touch he is with contemporary American reality, ala Judd Apatow and his Oh My God We Might Have To Move Out of Our Mansion catastrophe in This is 40). The reason Aidan’s dad can’t help out? He’s got inoperable cancer and wants to spend the money on alternative treatments.
Wish I Was Here, then, turns out to be one of those movies about a looming death; there’s no real plot otherwise. Aidan must learn to make peace with the inevitable and find a solution to the school issues. He decides to homeschool the kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon), which involves taking them camping and test-driving an Aston Martin with Donald Faison, his old Scrubs castmate, neither of which is likely to result in higher SAT scores.
Aidan must also drag his loner brother Noah (Josh Gad) into this harsh new reality. Noah, the sort of guy who gets excited about his ComicCon costume, is every bit the slacker Aidan is. He lives in a mobile home at the edge of the ocean but doesn’t work, presumably supporting himself on money left to him by their deceased mother. He’s estranged from their father — no kids to send to yeshiva, I guess — and Aidan badly wants them to reconcile before the old man dies.
Much is made of the brothers’ differences, but they seem awfully similar: childish, lazy, privileged, content to let others deal with the difficult parts of life. You can make great films about unlikable characters, of course, but Braff seems to think these guys are truly warm and wonderful (he wrote the script with his older brother Adam). But there’s no real evidence in Wish I Was Here to back up this theory. Even the humor is clumsy. In what may be a whimsical attempt to mimic the hilarious daydream sequences from Scrubs, Braff bookends the movie with fantasy sequences in which Aidan imagines himself as a spaceman superhero, but they feel lifeless, forced and ultimately heavy-handed.
Braff does deserve a bit of applause for taking the time to wrestle with questions of faith; movies rarely approach the subject with any seriousness, and death has a way of making us wonder about the divine. But Aidan displays such petulance in the other parts of his life that taking his religious quest seriously is almost impossible. What may be endearing in a young man is annoying when he approaches 40. That manchild card doesn’t have an infinite shelf life, especially when you have kids. If you can sit through this movie and not think “Get a job!” you are way more patient than I could ever be.
Cast: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon.
Director: Zach Braff.
Screenwriters: Zach Braff, Adam J. Braff.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 120 minutes. Language, some sexual content. Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach; in Palm Beach: Palace.