Wish I Was Here

Posted: August 1, 2014 at 2:01 a.m.

In a hospital waiting room, a 30-something man sits glumly, awaiting word of his father, who has had a relapse of cancer that appears to be most certainly life-threatening. It's the kicker to a particularly rough stretch for him, one that has found his marriage foundering, his two precocious kids about to be yanked out of yeshiva because the couple can't afford the tuition without his father's help, and his acting career increasingly becoming a dead end, with everyone telling him over and over how he can't provide properly for his family. Idly, he looks down on a side table where a small brochure display case has stenciled on it "This Pamphlet Could Save Your Life" -- only it's empty.

This is the slightly vexing cinematic world of Zach Braff, where difficult emotional journeys are colorfully spiked with cutesy character details and twee observations. Braff's debut film, Garden State, followed a similar sort of trajectory involving a troubled young protagonist finding his way out of medicated lethargy and into true emotional actualization. Here, his measured, idiosyncratic humor and relentless pop culture referencing remain intact -- for better or worse -- but the emotional backdrop has a good deal more at stake than a young man finding his way.

Braff plays Aidan, a would-be actor whose career remains in limbo, and whose wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), is forced to be the sole breadwinner, which adversely affects their relationship. When his father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), informs him about the recurrence of cancer and its eventual finality, Aidan retreats back to the Spaceman Spiff-like fantasy world inhabited by him and his younger brother, Noah (Josh Gad), a geeked-up recluse who lives an entirely selfish existence. Forced to home-school his two children -- young teen Grace (Joey King), a devout Jew who shaves her hair in the Orthodox tradition to make herself unattractive; and 6-year-old Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), who pretty much just wants to play video games -- Aidan tries to balance out his new familial responsibilities, both to his father and his children, while trying to hold onto his dream of an acting career.

The film is filled with the kind of pointedly quirky details that can make Braff's work seem so infuriatingly precious -- when Aidan takes the kids grocery shopping, he makes a point of taking the family's giant, glass swear jar with him in order to pay for everything out of it; Grace gives her dying grandfather a pair of dark welder's goggles so when he dies and enters the white light he won't have to squint to find their grandmother -- but underlying the more fanciful notions, there is at least the sense of an edge of real pain and fear.

About midway through the film, in fact, there is a powerhouse of a scene between Patinkin and Hudson, a pair of seasoned vets who have likely never been better on screen, playing two characters who have not historically gotten along, but who both come to an understanding about the importance of making amends in the short time they have on this Earth. It proves Braff can pull off adult emotional moments with shocking verve, but one must ignore a lot of the geegaws and throwaway jokes with which he otherwise stuffs his screen. There's the sense of a growing maturity in his filmmaking, but it's still pretty insufferable to wade through his relentless deluge of pat wisdom ("The problem with living in a fishbowl is everyone can see you") and pop-culture detritus in the process. For his legion of fans (many of whom contributed to the film's budget via Braff's controversial Kickstarter campaign), it's more than worth it; for the rest of us, likely not.

MovieStyle on 08/01/2014