When Zach Braff made his directorial debut a decade ago with Garden State, it was the rare occurrence of an actor finding his voice immediately as a filmmaker. Say what you want about the film and the indie pop-laden, melodramatic copy cats that followed, the truth is that Garden State was a cornerstone film that inspired those of a certain age and disposition to dream a bit greater. So it's a little odd that Braff took so long for his follow-up, Wish I Was Here, and while the film has similar aesthetic touches and tries to say too much, it's a heartfelt clarion call to arms for those with dreams that will never fade.
Braff took a lot of heat for his record-breaking Kickstarter efforts, and frankly a lot of the criticism has been undeserved. But there's something to be said about the freedom it gave Braff to do basically anything he wanted, and that becomes a recurring issue right from the start. He plays Aidan Bloom, a failed actor whose best gig was a TV commercial and little else. Months have gone between gigs meaning he's not making any money, putting the financial burden on wife Sarah (Kate Hudson), who works a job she hates but endures out of necessity. Aidan is more than just another adult who never really grew up, he's someone who comes off as selfish and pre-occupied with his own dreams to worry about others. That disregard extends to his children, who attend a private Hebrew school paid for by Aidan's father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) until he gets too sick to pony up the cash. Aidan's first reaction is to worry about himself and whether finding a job would distract from those all-important auditions.
And that's really just the start as Braff piles on even more subplots that often strike at something true but just as often get in the way from a clearer narrative. Josh Gad brings a little bit of humor and a lot of sadness to his role as Noah, Aidan's technologically talented brother who has withered his skills away as a blogger (nice cheap shot, Zach!). Gabe doesn't think much of Aidan at all but he really can't stand what Noah has done with his life. In broad strokes Braff explores issues of masculinity, faith, and midlife crisis with sincerity and real heart. Nobody can say Braff doesn't put everything he has into his work, even going so far as to blend in a few sci-fi sequences that hint the fantasy world in Aidan's mind. Aidan fancies himself a hero but as a father with responsibilities he's unprepared for the new heroic parameters.
Some will be quick to write the film off as merely Garden State redux but they may be surprised. Yes, you'll hear an endless stream of indie bands underscoring every crucial life moment, but the tone is considerably more spirited and upbeat, a tough thing to pull off with so many weighty themes. That seriousness is balanced by Braff's well-practiced comic timing, especially when paired up with the equally funny Patinkin. Braff still comes off as unnatural dramatically but he's better than when he starred in The Last Kiss some years ago.
The relevance of modern Judaism is explored in surprising detail, mostly through Aidan's daughter (Joey King, truly excellent) who faces an identity crisis similar to her father. It's one of the few subplots that really click, whereas others, like Noah's sudden love affair with a hot cosplay chick (Ashley Greene) feel tacked on and don't really go anywhere. The same goes for a pointless diversion about Sarah being harassed by a workplace colleague. Braff has enough material here to pad out a third movie and that's probably what he should have done. Surely a good chunk of that Kickstarter money is left over because this couldn't have cost but so much. Even if there isn't, Braff's fans who adored Garden State will find something to love in Wish I Was Here and will probably chip in a few dollars for another movie.