It's been 10 years since Garden State, the directorial debut for actor/writer/director Zach Braff, best known from the now defunct TV comedy series, Scrubs. That film wasn't a major box office smash, but it has developed into a sort of cult flick for college-agers and twenty-somethings. Braff returns to the helm, directing, starring and having co-written Wish I Was Here (opening today), a film that is not a sequel to Garden State, but one that does share many of its themes. And one that is not nearly as effective.
This time around, Braff plays Aidan, a Jewish father of two children, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King), who is happily married to his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson). I only point out his religion because it's a large part of who he is and plays a large role in the film as well. Aidan is a struggling actor who can't find anything fulfilling and although Sarah loves him, she feels like she has played the "supportive wife" a bit longer than maybe is realistic. In the midst of a very bad day, Aidan is given the news by his father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) that Gabe's cancer has returned and that he only has a little bit of time left.
This affects Aidan, not just because his dad is dying, but because his dad's monthly paychecks were helping to send his two kids to a private Jewish school. Now in treatment, Gabe no longer can send the checks and - gasp! - the children may end up having to go to a public school.
Oh I know, right? The horror.
This has all the makings of melodrama, which is appropriate. But early on Braff defines the movie with a somewhat dark, humorous tone. This devious blend of comedy and drama only partially works. In fact, the overriding problem with the film is that it tries to be too many things all at once, never really paying off as anything in particular.
When it begins, we feel like the movie might be about Aidan finding himself on behalf of his children, but it becomes more about the relationship between Aidan and his father. Then there is some under-cooked stuff thrown in there dealing with Sarah's patience as a figure of support to her husband. Before we forget, the movie becomes about Aidan trying to convince the Jewish private school to show his children some charity. Then shoe-horned in is a story about Aidan's estranged brother, Noah (Josh Gad) and his pent up hatred for his dying father. Oh yeah, then it's about Noah meeting a girl (Ashley Greene) at some sort of nerd convention. The plot bounces around all over the place in this manner. None of the plot lines really amount to anything of substance.
Take for example the subplot involving Aidan's estranged brother, Noah. Noah has a horrible relationship with his father, but is slowly coaxed into possibly paying his final respects to the man. Years of emotional pain, easily settled over the course of a two-hour movie. It's that sort of simple-shallowness that the film suffers from.
Braff too, seems more comfortable in the film's comedic moments. The heavier emotional scenes that he shares with gifted actors like Mandy Patinkin, aren't as effortless. But even much of the comedy falls flat, like a running gag involving his dad's dog, who seems to relieve himself on anything except grass.
There is enough passable material in Wish I Was Here to at least prevent me from wishing I wasn't. Many of the introduced themes were compelling, but none of them were given enough space to be fleshed out. Inside of this one were the ideas for several interesting films, too tangled up in one another to work when combined.
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Run Time: 2 hours, Rated R
Starring: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Josh Gad, Mandy Patinkin, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Alexander Chaplin, Ashley Greene
Co-Written & Directed by Zach Braff (Garden State)
Opens locally on Wednesday, July 18, 2014 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time