Zach Braff Fumbles Away "Garden State" Follow-Up

Zach Braff’s “Garden State” was a charming indie with an inherently short shelf life, destined to play like gangbusters during a small window in 2004 and never again. Revisiting the film in 2014 is a perfect snapshot as to why it’s taken the actor-writer-director a decade to follow it up. His variety of heart-on-sleeve earnestness mixed with hipster cred (see: “Garden State” soundtrack) is a tight rope act of the highest order, a recipe that was perfect for pre-Youtube college age America, not ideal in a world of 140-character snark.

Stronger evidence, still, for the 10-year gap? Said follow-up “Wish I Was A Here,” the aimless dramedy that many feared Braff would make. A fine work for its first 30 minutes, the film creatively runs aground and never jostles itself loose, content to wallow in the kind of misery that “Garden State” rebuffed. When Braff puts the breaks on his narrative – or merely removes the facade of a story – audiences will wish his financial crowdsourcing (nearly 50,000 fans pitched in on Kickstarter) had extended to its screenplay. Surely some writers amongst the masses that could have done better than this.

Braff stars as Aidan Bloom, father, husband, brother, son, and struggling Hollywood actor, whose family has grown to enthusiastically resent him. Their bitterness manifests itself in different ways, his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), swallowing her own disappointment, his brother, Noah (Josh Gad), acting outwardly hostile, and his father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), passive aggressively taking out his frustrations on his son. When Gabe reveals that his cancer has returned and the cost of treatment will take Aidan’s kids out of the Jewish day school he’d been paying for, the agnostic Aidan quietly, grossly finds delight, relaying how truly lost he’s become.

Aidan’s kids, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), are the most interesting characters in the lot, finding themselves de facto parents in a family without an emotional compass. Grace has become self-conscious to a fault, ultimately shaving her own head out of frustration, while Tucker’s antics are seemingly the only thing holding the family together, as if each tense moment hangs on his ability to lighten up a room. Faced with the prospect of homeschooling the pair, Aidan only withdraws further, mentally breaking from reality with daydreams of being a futuristic superhero.

The beauty of the film is in its terrific cinematography (by Lawrence Sher) and the richness of Braff’s characters, both serving as inviting sandbox for its cast. But “Wish I Was Here” is little more than its characters, and by act two they’re reduced to sitting around, waiting for Gabe to die. As a meditation on prolonged grief and the unpredictable nature of death, it’s serviceable, but it doesn’t make for a very interesting movie. Braff’s typical stylish touches – Aidan carries around a swear jar for no particular reason- are here, but with no bearing on the story.

The afterthought of a narrative is evidenced by the early introduction of Gabe’s dog, used for a quick laugh and then quickly forgotten, never to be seen again. More useless, still, is Gad’s barely-there arc as an angry comic book nerd who reclaims his humanity via sex with an attractive girl (Ashley Greene). She takes to him because he creates an impressive costume for the San Diego Comic-Con, and it’s as inauthentic a subplot as it sounds. His post-coital epiphany is the film’s low point, suggesting that Braff fell in love with these characters to the point that he’d follow them anywhere. Audiences won’t be so kind.

The film is best taken in small doses. Certain images – like that of Aidan duct taping his kids to a chair in front of a TV showing “Reading Rainbow” – are memorable. In moments like these, Braff’s talent seeps through, making the entirety of the endeavor that much more agonizing. The pic’s main sentiment – that we’re never done becoming who we are, that we’re all unfinished products – is a nice one, but the filmmaker and his cast are better than the film’s absurdly loose narrative framework. The right follow-up to “Garden State” would have been entirely removed from “Garden State.” “Wish I Was Here” plays like a pale imitation, undercooked and years past its sell-by date.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 18, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Zach Braff
Screenwriter: Zach Braff, Adam Braff
Starring: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)