Has it really been 10 years? Are things so different now? Are we? Is Zach Braff's new "Wish I Was Here" a spiritual sequel to "Garden State," his 2004 directorial debut? Answer key: yes, yes, maybe, kind of but not really.
Uncertainty and transition, the exploration of fumbling emotions and ungrounded anxieties, can now be seen as the key interests of Braff's career behind the camera. "Garden State" became an unexpected coming-of-age touchstone with its earnest, soul-deep sense of moral confusion and the strength of its willingness to be raw, exposed. "Wish I Was Here," on the other hand, feels self-satisfied rather than sincere, defensive rather than open. For a film that purports to be about the process of maturity and growth, it is woefully un-evolved, lacking in understanding and insight.
With its greeting card aphorisms and muddled style, Braff's latest feels like a step back rather than some new destination. There is simply no there to "Wish I Was Here."
Written by Braff and his brother Adam Braff, the new film feels personal and distanced, as if they don't entirely know what they wanted to express beyond simply the idea of expressing emotions. Where "Garden State" shaped and gave direction to its amorphous feelings, "Wish I Was Here" just splays ideas in every direction, hoping something lands. It's like the online catchphrase of "all the feels" - ungrounded and unspecific emotions, sprawled out with a soft-pop soundtrack.
Zach Braff plays Aidan Bloom, whose nonstarter L.A. acting career is nearing its expiration date as a sustainable dream, with building concerns regarding his patiently supportive wife (Kate Hudson) and two growing children (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon). The Blooms decide to home-school the kids once Aidan's dying father (Mandy Patinkin) can no longer afford to send them to a private school. Aidan's brother (Josh Gad) is a self-styled hermit more concerned with his costume for a Comic-Con contest than anything else.
As Aidan takes the kids on a series of outings that includes a trip to the desert and a luxury car test drive as part of their new lesson plan - is this what home-schooling is really about? - he is also inching toward new conclusions about himself, underscored by the looming demise of his father. The film is peppered with fanciful sequences in which Aidan is some sort of fantasy hero with a robot sidekick, which contrasts sharply with the drab routines of mundane struggle that is his actual life.
"Garden State" has in the time since its success faded for many people who are perhaps now slightly embarrassed to have ever liked a movie of such heart-on-its-sleeve sincerity. That is something to be proud of, not ashamed by, and if only the Brothers Braff had kept in mind the power of something so simple and direct.
The new movie does have brief glimmers of the kinds of emotional truths it seems interested in uncovering, making its inability to hold it all together all the more disappointing. A conversation between Braff and a young rabbi (Alexander Chaplin) on the nature of God is direct in style and substance where so much of the rest of the film is fussy and mannered. As well, the slinky naturalism of Hudson's performance often seems at odds with the twitchy anxiousness of Braff's own turn.
The story is wildly disjointed, cramming together thematic notions about parenting, family, male maturity and Jewish identity - any of which would have made for a better movie if more deeply explored. Yet "Wish I Was Here" doesn't feel overstuffed as if bursting with ideas, rather it feels entirely underdeveloped, limp and lacking a solid core. It seems instructive that dialogue heard as an opening voice-over is also spoken at the end of the film, like a term paper padded by restating the thesis at the conclusion.
Many people first heard of the "Wish I Was Here" project when Braff, one-time star of the TV show "Scrubs," more recently on-stage in the adaptation of "Bullets Over Broadway," sent out an appeal via the crowdfunding website Kickstarter for financing, setting off a predictable cycle of backlash. If Braff was unable to attain the budget he wanted via conventional financing channels, perhaps it's because others could already see the flaws in the script. Maybe, just maybe, sometimes the Hollywood system gets it right.
WISH I WAS HERE
MPAA rating: R for language and sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes