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Zach Braff’s sophomore directional effort, Wish I Was Here, could just as easily be called Garden State 2. With the same angst-filled humor, and melancholic mood, Braff has taken on the persona portrayed by both of his main characters; he is stuck.
Wish I Was Here opens with a piece of dialogue that gets repeated three times throughout the story, the gist of which, is that the Narrator, Aiden (Braff) once thought he was the hero of his story, and now believes he is the character that needs to be saved. Aiden is an out of work actor living in the suburbs of Los Angeles with his wife and two children, and he is having a mid-life crisis. His two children, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), have been placed in an Orthodox Jewish school by their grandfather (Mandy Patinkin), much to the chagrin of the non-religious Aiden. Wish I Was Here has a surprising amount of spirituality and religion woven into the storyline, mostly by the two hyper-religious children. All of the soul-searching, however, is reserved exclusively for Aiden. Tensions mount when Aiden’s father, Gabe is told that his cancer is back, and spreading quickly. He can no longer afford to keep his grandchildren in their Jewish elementary school, the solution to which, is Aiden home schooling them. Forced to confront the impending death of his father; mend his strained relationships with his brother, Noah (Josh Gad), and wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson); and give his kids a street-wise education; Aiden is stretched to his limit.
While the plot of Wish I Was Here is certainly a very common one, the way Braff goes about it is unique. His particular style of brash and in-your-face humor really worked to keep this, otherwise dull, film aloft. Braff does an admirable job a playing a father who is not afraid to speak his mind (with a generous smattering of expletives thrown in) and show his kids how to fail gracefully. His mix of quirky contemplation and quick outbursts of defeated profanity help keep the pacing up and add an air of lightness to the piece. The true stars of this film are the impeccably-cast of Joey King and Pierce Gagnon. The 15 year old King, delivers an incredibly powerful performance as the devoutly religious and hormonally-confused Grace. Her “straight man” counter to Braff’s “clown” is nearly perfect, and her emotion filled speeches are flawlessly delivered. She is able to convey more emotion in one look with her tear-filled swollen eyes, than Braff does in his varied philosophical soliloquies. Mandy Patinkin’s performance as the dying, Gabe is yet another high-point of the film. Hidden behind a very unruly beard, and unkempt eyebrows, Patinkin brings a quiet dignity to a role that deserves just that. The evolution of his character from a stone-hearted patriarch to a remorse-filled man on his death bed, is enough to bring any movie goer to tears.
Constantly seeking spiritual guidance from various sources, Braff’s Aiden is stuck in the same “failure to launch” as his character from Garden State. All of his emotional revaluations bear little emotional weight, and come across cheaply. The heavy-handed metaphors about life, love and loss, seem to be no more valuable than fodder for self help books. Braff (and co-writer/brother of Zach, Adam Braff) come across as desperately trying to make the audience feel for these two-dimensional characters. Without spending the time to truly develop any character in particular, Braff seems to focus on everyone at once, while feeding cinema-goers his mantra on leading a good life. The only characters that you end up feeling any true empathy for are the children, and they are left as an aside to Aiden’s quest to reconcile his life and relationship with his father.
Wish I Was Here tries desperately to pull at your heart strings and move you to tears, but it simply tries too hard. Braff’s Garden State worked because it was just as lost as its main character, and did not seem to have an agenda. Wish I Was Here on the other hand, exhaustively seeks to be quirky, while exerting its lessons on the audience. While Braff’s, Wish I Was Here is certainly not a poorly made film, but its undeveloped characters and heavy-handed dialogue leave a lot to be desired.