I have nothing but fond memories of Garden State, writer-director-actor Zach Braff’s 2004 debut. I saw it in the cinema when it came out, at the time being very pleased to have the opportunity to as my local multiplex rarely if ever showed independent films. Expecting fairly standard rom-com fare, I found it affected me a lot more than I expected. I later bought the DVD, had a poster of it on my student bedroom wall, and yes, got the soundtrack. As I mentioned when I included Wish I Was Here in my 10 most anticipated films of the year list, I haven’t seen Garden State in years and am quite hesitant to ever watch it again due to the way its reputation has plummeted in recent years (though it’s still at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes).
While aware of that, nothing quite prepared me for the amount venomous hatred spewed in Braff’s direction following the announcement he was making a new film. You’d have thought he’d been churning out legions of terrible yet popular films for years given the backlash he received, or even had some Mel Gibson-style public meltdown. I’ve actually seen more than one article attempting to analyse why so many people seem to hate him so much. I suppose this is partly due to his use of crowd-funding to secure finances, the negative reaction to which I really don’t get: it’s entirely voluntary and gives more power to the artist.
In actually, Braff’s been essentially off the radar since Garden State, he hasn’t directed a single other film in the interim. He appeared in two terrible comedies in 2006, The Last Kiss and The Ex, and his TV show Scrubs suffered the fate many successful network shows do – long outstaying its welcome. Braff’s only high-profile gig in the last few years has been voicing a talking monkey in Oz the Great and Powerful.
A decade on from Garden State, a film that initially looked like it might be the beginning of a successful career behind the camera, we get a chance to see Wish I Was Here, and it doesn’t get off to a great start. In Garden State, Braff played a twenty-something struggling actor, in Wish I Was Here, he plays a thirty-something struggling actor. It’s easy to make jokes about the similarities between the two films – one began with him learning of his mother’s death, the other does with him learning his father has terminal cancer, but there are also key differences. For starters this is not a romance, Braff is married with two kids. His wife (Kate Hudson) makes more money in a tedious office job while he drifts between auditions. His children attend an orthodox Jewish private school subsidised by his father (Mandy Patinkin) but due to his cancer, Braff can no longer afford to send them there.
Religion is a minor theme throughout the film’s first half (Braff’s smart daughter takes it much more seriously than he apparently does), and it often appears to be aping the offbeat laughs of the Coen’s A Serious Man by dropping its unsuspecting audience into modern Jewish practices. However it lacks much of the wit and subtlety the Coens brought; exemplified by one of the more memorable laughs occurring when an elderly Rabbi crashes his Segway into a hospital wall.
In general, Wish I Was Here is at its worst when it tries to be overtly funny; witness the desperate introduction to Braff’s family where he attempts to score laughs from having the kids comment on him swearing, then doing so themselves. There are admittedly a few chuckles along the way (one of the early auditions) but Braff (co-writing with his brother Adam) misses far more often than he hits. There are also a few fantasy sequences when he sees himself as an astronaut peppered throughout that serve little purpose.
So what’s become of Braff’s famed soundtrack-compiling abilities? Well, they’re basically what you’d expect. His music tastes don’t appear to have evolved much in a decade, and he utilises a lot of the same artists as he did in Garden State, including, you knew it, The Shins. Again, there are a few older songs (Paul Simon) a few newer ones (Bon Iver) and a few in between (Jump Little Children). In all they’re a pretty inoffensive bunch, there’s nothing as on-the-nose as the “this song will change your life” moment and he admittedly uses some of them fairly well. It’s worth mentioning though that a lot of the better moments feature Rob Simonsen’s score rather than Braff’s mix-tape selections.
There’s not a great deal of story to Wish I Was Here, it’s more interested in exploring the family dynamics. This results in some strong scenes, generally involving both Braff and his wife’s relationship with his father, but unfortunately his young son is a fairly typical annoying movie kid, though his daughter (the Fargo TV show’s Joey King) fares better. There are a number of sub-plots – Hudson has to deal with a workmate harassing her, Braff’s layabout brother (Josh Gad) learns to like his cosplay enthusiast neighbour – that are a similarly mixed bag. He ropes in a good number of his past collaborators for appearances too; Garden State bit-players Jim Parsons and Michael Weston both have memorable, brief turns, as does Scrubs co-star Donald Faison.
There are plenty of ideas in Wish I Was Here, but there isn’t any one cohesive story to unite them. There are lot of issues to the film’s comedy yet at the same time it undoubtedly possesses some touching, heartfelt moments, that might be Braff’s real strength as a director. He’s is a perfectly competent filmmaker, but if he wants to move forward and silence his many critics, he should perhaps consider directing something he hasn’t written.