Sophomore slumps don’t come any more irritating than “Wish I Was Here,” the painfully sincere, emotionally fraudulent new comedy-drama from actor-writer-director Zach Braff. Braff became a star on TV’s “Scrubs” and got lucky with his first movie, 2004’s “Garden State,” a decent coming-of-age story and an even better iTunes playlist. Recently, he made news for taking to Kickstarter in a successful online bid to raise millions of dollars for his new film. A controversy arose: Should wealthy, connected Hollywood insiders shake down their fans for funding?
That’s the wrong question. The right question is: Can we crowd-source a class-action suit to get the money back?
“Wish I Was Here” follows the strenuously wacky yet sensitive travails of Aidan (Braff), a struggling Los Angeles actor who still hasn’t made it after several decades of auditions. Wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) is the breadwinner, toiling at a cubicle job next to a mouth-breathing harasser (Michael Weston). Teenage daughter Grace (Joey King) loves her Orthodox Jewish private school so much she wants her own modesty wig. Younger son Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) is a generic wise-cracking Ritalin candidate.
All is proceeding happily and dysfunctionally until Aidan’s acerbic father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) pulls the funding for his grandkids’ private school because he has terminal cancer and needs the cash for experimental stem cell treatments. No, that’s not a spoiler; just a warning that “Wish I Was Here” will try to yank your tears through endless close-ups of Patinkin on his death-bed with tubes coming out his nose. Also by resorting to slow-motion montages, glutinous Deep Thoughts expressed in voice-over (“The problem with hiding in a fishbowl is that everyone can see you”), and James Taylor classics on the soundtrack. Seriously, I’m not trying to ruin the movie. I’m trying to save you.
As an actor, Braff does thin-skinned sad-sack quite well. As a writer, he’s hopelessly banal. As a director, he’s a disaster.
Self-indulgently long at 120 minutes, “Wish I Was Here” flounders in search of a tone, veering from dramatic naturalism to cutesy dream sequences (Aidan as superhero) to labored visual gags (Aidan tries to home-school the kids, ends up duct-taping them to chairs). Straining toward greater meaning, the script trips over potted Zen aphorisms (“We move forward; that’s the only direction God gave us”) and settles for sitcom wisecracks. An impeccably strummy soundtrack of alt-pop (the Shins, Bon Iver) tries to hold it together and fails. Even a rabbi on a Segway can’t save this movie.
The real problem is that the hero is a self-absorbed child who, when his wife expresses dissatisfaction with her hellish job, whines “I thought you supported my dream.” The entire male side of Aidan’s family makes a terrible impression, actually, from that judgmental father to brother Noah (Josh Gad), a misanthropic creep who lives in a trailer and who we’re apparently meant to find adorable. Ashley Greene (the “Twilight” movies) plays the gorgeous fantasy-cosplay girl — emphasis on fantasy — with whom Noah eventually finds love and costumed sex.
A better film (and a better filmmaker) would urge us to empathize with these flawed individuals — OK, these yutzes — and recognize their common humanity. Instead, “Wish I Was Here” repels through a combination of flippant dialogue, awkward emotional manipulation, heavy-handed symbolism (including that all-purpose SoCal metaphor, the swimming pool), and Braff’s belief that he’s saying anything new or profound here.
That’s delusional; I’ve seen tea bags with more on their mind. “Wish I Was Here” is a spiritual odyssey that’s actively dispiriting — that wants to make you love the world but that only made me hate Zach Braff. Your own reaction may not be as visceral. Still, don’t be surprised if you find yourself wishing you were somewhere — anywhere — else.