REVIEW: You’ll ‘Wish’ it were better

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For 21st Century Media

“Wish I Was Here” is the follow-up to Zach Braff’s 2004 debut as a writer/director, “Garden State.”
Once again, Braff plays a struggling Los-Angeles-based actor with serious daddy issues. Now named Aidan Bloom, his last paying job was in a dandruff commercial, as a flake-afflicted individual. His career isn’t exactly trending toward stardom.
Aidan is essentially an indolent parasite, living off the income earned by his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson). She endures a dead-end job entering data onto spread sheets, while fending off the unrelenting verbal sexual harassment of a male co-worker. When Grace complains to her boss, he adopts a dismissive attitude, contending that it is no big deal. After all, there was no actual physical contact involved. No harm — no foul. Really?
Aidan harbors a secular belief system. That is certainly his prerogative. However, it seems hypocritical that he sends his hoydenish daughter, Grace (Joey King) and her younger brother, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), to a Jewish grade school for affluent families.

This image released by Focus Features shows, from left, Pierce Gagnon, Joey King, and Zach Braff in "Wish I Was Here." (AP Photo/Focus Features, Merie Weismiller Wallace)

This image released by Focus Features shows, from left, Pierce Gagnon, Joey King, and Zach Braff in “Wish I Was Here.” (AP Photo/Focus Features, Merie Weismiller Wallace)

All this goes awry when Aidan’s dad, Gabe (Mandy Patankin) announces that he has terminal cancer. He is no longer willing to pay the considerable tuition to send his grandchildren to private school. Gabe has never been supportive of Aidan’s aspirations to become an actor. Now, he bluntly suggests that Aidan get a real job.
This central story line is augmented by a subplot about Aidan’s younger brother, Noah (Josh Gad). This corpulent slacker lives in a beachside trailer park. He is already in his 30s. However, Noah remains obsessed with dressing up in fantasy costumes and attending conventions for other emotionally-arrested individuals.
Throughout the film, there are repeated flashbacks of younger versions of Aidan and Noah, decked out in “Star Wars” type outfits, playing together. By any chance is it time for these two to accept, however begrudgingly, the realities of adulthood?
Zach Braff has never been more than a relatively lightweight actor. His primary distinction was portraying a medical resident in the long-running television series, “Scrubs.” In the midst of the show’s popularity, Braff made “Garden State.”
The film starred Braff and Natalie Portman as two mental patients. Braff’s character was a marginally successful actor. In this putative comedy, he had been enveloped for years in a zombie-like, lithium-induced walking coma. The drugs were prescribed by his stern, controlling psychiatrist father (Ian Holm). Portman’s irrepressibly upbeat character wore a protective helmet for her epilepsy and manifested a propensity for gratuitous pathological lying.
The two met cute in a psychiatrist’s waiting room. Predictably, an ever-so-cute relationship ensued between these ever-so-cute characters. Did I mention that this film about heavily medicated mental patients was supposedly cute? “Garden State” made the rounds of the festival circuit, where it was embraced as an audience favorite. Neophyte auteur, Braff, was cited for the promise that this film supposedly exhibited. As a dissenter to the chorus of accolades, I contended that the film milked mental illness for cheap laughs. Despite its cast, which also included Peter Sarsgaard, I regarded the film as an exercise in self-indulgence.
A full decade has passed since “Garden State” was released to the public. What has Braff been up to? Following the demise of “Scrubs,” he hasn’t done much as a thespian. He certainly hasn’t used his hiatus from acting to emerge as an auteur of note. Making a film every 10 years doesn’t exactly constitute being prolific.
This time, Braff has cranked out a screenplay in conjunction with his brother, Adam. The principle difference between this film and Braff’s prior flick is that the lead character is now 10 years older. Otherwise, “Wish I Was Here” manifests Braff’s propensity for regurgitating hackneyed dramatic tropes and concocting far-fetched caricatures as characters. The film embodies a disconcerting tendency to treat serious subjects in a flippant manner. It struggles unsuccessfully to find a cohesive tone. Instead, the film careens wildly between schlock humor and futile stabs at pathos.
You can wish all you want that this film were better, but it just won’t help. Unfortunately, “Wish I Was Here” never transcends mediocrity.

“Wish I Was Here”
**1/2 R (for language and some sexual content)114 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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