Zach Braff has finally done it. He’s created a film that’s every bit the smarmy montage of faux-meaningful clichés his harshest critics said of ‘Garden State.’ Funny thing is, I actually liked ‘Garden State.’ Once you strip away The Shins and “this song will change your life,” it had some interesting things to say about what it’s like to have to revisit your hometown as an adult, and it wasn’t afraid to mix the funny and the sentimental. It was earnest, but it was honest. Thus, I was cautiously optimistic about a new Zach Braff project, even while I completely understand why people may have soured on his on-the-nose sentimentality and his love-me-daddy precious inoffensiveness.
While that shot of the empty pamphlet container reading “this pamphlet could save your life” you remember from the ‘Wish I Was Here’ trailer does indeed feel like some of the best of ‘Garden State,’ the rest of it is alternately dull and infuriating. Braff plays a struggling actor whose dad gets cancer and can’t afford to pay for Braff’s kids’ private school anymore, while his gorgeous wife (Kate Hudson) works an unfulfilling job and occasionally withholds sex. He also has a loser brother who sometimes shows up to do stereotypical loser stuff. His struggles as an actor and his kids’ unconscionable eviction from their cushy private school are structured as a family crisis narrative, and it’s sort of like watching someone have a panic attack over non-problems, and then expecting you to feel relieved and affirmed as the attack ends while the blandest of indie rock plays. Not to mention a magical realist dramedy angle that makes it almost impossible to review without turning into Holden Caufield. Phony! Phony! Phony! How phony is ‘Wish I Was Here?’ It’s a film in which Zach Braff’s father (played by Mandy Patinkin) has saved all of his old contact lenses in a jar because “it has everything he ever saw.”
Ah yes, a brand new wonder-infused turd nugget of new age idiot wisdom, and just when I’d almost forgotten about the saves-his-chicken-wrappers guy from ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild.’ What other hoarders behavior can we consecrate through shitty Oprah-ism? Q-tips in a baby shoe? Tampons in a crock pot? I can practically see the discarded grocery bag billowing in their empty heads. The most beautiful thing I ever saw… The most beautiful thing I ever saw… Dear Sundance Movies, please stop asking me to be emotionally invested in piles of garbage.
If this is Zach Braff working through his real problems, he’s hampered by the fact that his real problems are both boring and well-worn. ‘Wish I Was Here’ hits all the tropes of white suburban ennui – the ranch-style home, the minivan, the quirky kids, the quirky dying parents, the ne’er-do-well brother, the sexless marriage, the illicit masturbation, the glib irreligious Jew with his hot blonde wife, the swear jar (!!!). God help me if I ever have to hang out with anyone so boring that their family keeps a swear jar. It ends up playing like if ‘American Beauty,’ ‘This is 40,’ and ‘A Serious Man’ had a baby together and then castrated it.
Now, a lot of people find movies about suburban white dude problems tedious, or self-indulgent. In general people seem to have a low tolerance for any comedy that isn’t a wild high-concept or a stock premise, like buddy cops. As a guy who has dabbled in stand-up comedy, a gesture that frequently involves telling strangers about your problems, and your dick, and your dick problems, I actually appreciate comedy built around the petite masturbatory miseries of the mostly comfortable American male. I liked ‘American Beauty.’ I liked ‘Funny People.’ I even thought ‘This is 40’ was mostly okay. But while you might find it gushy or juvenile or tedious, at least when Judd Apatow bitches about his non-problems, it feels honest (and usually has laughs). ‘Wish I Was Here’ just feels derivative, so predictable in its angst that you find yourself waiting for a twist that never comes, and imbued with a trendy earnestness so without wit or edge that it’s like being slowly smushed to death with dull smarm.
Since nothing that wild or interesting happens, the characters overreact to mundane events to compensate. And just in case you’re still not onboard, every scene ends with some soaring, mid-tempo Brooklyn power ballad that practically screams “ISN’T THIS LIFE AFFIRMING??!?” No, man, not really, your daughter shaved her head, who gives a f*ck? Every single scene is like that. Watching this movie is enough to make you never want to hear another mandolin again. The best song they use in it is Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child,” and oops, there’s already a movie called ‘Obvious Child’ that premiered a day earlier at Sundance (January 17th for ‘Obvious Child,’ January 18th for ‘Wish I Was Here’). I’m not suggesting that Zach Braff ripped off ‘Obvious Child,’ but the accidental dramedic synergy of the two does say something about the predictability of the whole endeavor.
Oh right, about those overreactions. Zach Braff’s daughter shaves off her hair one night – not even bald, just a number three or four – and her parents (Braff and Kate Hudson) FREAK OUT over it like she just murdered the pope. Zach Braff takes her to the wig store and tells her she can buy “any wig you want, as long as it’s unique and beautiful just like you.”
It’d be a sweet gesture, if his daughter was a cancer patient, or a girl stricken with debilitating mange from working at the homeless dog shelter or whatever, but she’s not. She’s just a pretty little girl with short hair. How many girls do you know that have cut their hair short at least once in their lives? Probably a lot. The parents’ reaction is actually kind of disturbing, yet the indie music seems to be patting them on the back for their tolerance of their horribly disfigured daughter, like some strangely patriarchal LA cool-dad noblesse oblige.
The other big freak out is over Kate Hudson’s cubicle mate, who tells her “I always get this weird sort of half boner when I don’t wear underwear.” While you can understand her being slightly annoyed by him, you immediately like this guy because he’s the first not-entirely-predictable thing that’s happened in this whole movie. Nonetheless, she complains about him to her boss, who is obviously a bad guy because he has a giant Dick Cheney poster. Which, okay, not even Dick Cheney’s children would find a Dick Cheney poster believable. This is just the embodiment of every boring LA liberal’s boogieman (and I say this as a boring California liberal). Nonetheless, boss moves Kate Hudson’s boner buddy to another part of the office. Problem solved, right? Nope. The movie won’t rest. Not until there’s been a public confrontation and the man has been fired, publicly humiliated, and threatened with a sexual harassment suit, all for making a jokey reference to his wiener one day. It’s like the movie is punishing him for being the only one in it who isn’t nauseatingly earnest.
Then there’s Braff’s ne’er-do-well loser brother played by Josh Gad, who lives in an Airstream trailer bequeathed to him by his late mother. He doesn’t have a job and tells Braff “I think I’m gonna start blogging,” because the fat-loser-blogger-who-lives-in-his-dead-mom’s-trailer is Braff’s innovative new take on the fat-loser-blogger-who-lives-in-his-mom’s-basement trope. He goes to comic con and bangs a hot furry played by Ashley Greene (at one point she shows up in a totally see-through tank top, easily the best part of the movie), and honestly, the whole subplot kind of feels like either Zach Braff’s pre-emptive swipe at the meanie critics he knows are going to hate this movie, or a retroactive swipe at all the people who criticized him for funding this movie on Kickstarter. Either way, it culminates with a scene where Josh Gad is wearing a home made space helmet made out of a fish bowl, the kicker of which is Zach Braff snarling “You know what’s the problem with hiding in a fish bowl, Ray? It’s that everyone can see you.”
OOooh, sick burn, said a cheering imaginary Maury audience inside Zach Braff’s subconscious.
The best part of the film, not surprisingly, is Mandy Patinkin, who gets three of the four lines in the film that land, dramatically and comedically. But by the time he’s laying on his deathbed and his grand daughter hands him some welding glasses “so that when you see the white light, you’ll be able to find grandma” your reaction has gone from “hand me that vomit bag” to “I’m going to find Zach Braff and hit him with this overflowing vomit bag.”
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.