Zach Braff’s latest is an exercise in phony emoting

Parental guidance: Braff imparts some disingenuous life lessons.
Mike D'Angelo

Two stars

Wish I Was Here Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Joey King. Directed by Zach Braff. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Wish I Was Here should really be called Wish I Were Here—counterfactuals require the subjunctive—but that’s the least of its problems. Co-writer/director/star Zach Braff, who hadn’t stepped behind the camera since 2004’s Garden State, famously turned to Kickstarter to secure a big chunk of the budget for his belated follow-up, touching off a debate about whether crowd-funding should be available to millionaires. Regardless of one’s opinion on that subject, however, Wish I Was Here plays very much like the brainchild of a wealthy celebrity with delusions of non-grandeur. It’s a tone-deaf attempt to explore the feelings of inadequacy suffered by someone who’s never achieved his dreams, made by a man who hit the jackpot.

The failed alternate-universe version of Braff is named Aidan Bloom, and he, too, is an actor, though he’s spent his entire adult life hustling to auditions without ever getting his big break. Consequently, Aidan’s wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), provides most of the family’s income, compounding the guilt he already feels by constantly talking about how much she despises her job. Further financial difficulties ensue when Aidan’s father (Mandy Patinkin), who’d been paying to send Aidan and Sarah’s two kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) to private school, is diagnosed with cancer and has to divert all of his cash to medical care. This precipitates a sudden midlife crisis for Aidan, who begins re-examining his entire life from the ground up, all while struggling to home-school the kids and keep his marriage from foundering.

Braff peppers Wish I Was Here with fantasy sequences in which Aidan imagines himself as a costumed superhero—a recurring dose of whimsy better suited to Scrubs. Thing is, though, the entire movie feels like a glib fantasy, even (especially) when it strives for cathartic realism. As both writer and director, Braff thinks in the superficial, overly explanatory language of sitcoms, reducing potentially complex emotions to jejune nuggets of pseudo-wisdom. His intentions are good, but his instincts are relentlessly shallow; rather than genuinely grapple with the kinds of problems ordinary people face, he’d rather lighten the mood with a quick gag, or construct a montage set to his favorite indie rock, or pretend that life’s difficulties can be solved by driving out to some isolated location and staring pensively at Nature for a while. Wish I Was Here is the cinematic equivalent of those photo ops that show the president downing a beer in some dive bar, in an effort to demonstrate that he’s Just Like Us. The phoniness leaps to the eye.

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