It’s hard to see the fiscal woes at the center of Zach Braff’s second feature, Wish I Was Here, as anything more than a fashionable depiction of first-world problems. The film’s hero, Aidan Bloom (Braff), is a struggling actor who, because of the paltry income he makes from scattershot roles, must ask his father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), to pay to send Aidan’s kids, Grace and Tucker (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon), to private school. As the film begins, Gabe is now in need of these very same funds for a series of hail-mary cancer treatments. Though there aren’t many similarities between Braff’s family life and Aidan’s, there’s more than a mild hint that the actor-writer-director is addressing his own issues as a professional performer throughout the narrative, but Wish I Was Here evokes nothing personal about such trials, painting the agonies of stilted expression in the broadest sentimental strokes imaginable.
Beyond the turns of the wonky plot, which revolves loosely around Gabe’s final days, the film’s true subject is maturing and handling life’s myriad letdowns without growing bitter, though Braff doesn’t seem to think that takes much effort. Wish I Was Here’s cutesy, earnest tone muddles the dangers, sadness, regret, and stress inherent in the hard situations weathered by the Blooms. For all their talk of being strapped for cash, there’s no sense of sacrifice or struggle to their day-to-day lives, only some vague need for a vacation. Though the family’s lack of work and money is the story’s impetus, most of the film’s bloated runtime involves Aidan cutting loose with Grace and Tucker, pausing occasionally to dole out philosophical platitudes that are fit for a greeting card. Ultimately, nothing so much as Aidan’s ego seems in real trouble.
There was a dull but consistent mood to the aesthetic and pace of Braff’s popular debut, Garden State, but here he’s too intent on toggling frantically between sequences of cheap comic repartee and shallow melodrama. The filmmaker relies on limp observations about Segways, YouTube, Miley Cyrus, and other obvious targets to fuel the brunt of his humor, and whenever he gets sincere, the interactions come off as hurried and half-thought. It’s not easy to buy the sorrow and hope of Gabe’s heart-to-heart with Sarah (Kate Hudson), Aidan’s saintly wife, when it’s sandwiched between two scenes of Aidan and the kids goofing off, one of which features a Donald Faison cameo and doubles as a would-be Cadillac commercial. Finding any reason to be compelled by Grace’s climactic talk with her pothead uncle, Noah (Josh Gad), is even more difficult, seeing as said plea takes place while Noah is banging his neighbor (Ashley Greene) in Comic-Con garb. And when emoting or jokes don’t work, Braff is happy to let his soft-rock soundtrack guide the audience toward how he wants them to feel.
Among the endless subplots and asides (Sarah’s sexual harassment claim against a co-worker, Grace’s devout Judaism, Aidan’s lapsed faith, to name a few), Wish I Was Here depends on the same alternately zippy and sappy comedy that made Braff famous in Scrubs. The continuation of that comedic style here feels at direct odds with the story’s positive view of maturity and change. Indeed, true to its title, Braff’s latest feels as if it’s consistently running from the grim central premise it’s loosely tethered to, that of Aidan and Noah making peace with Gabe before he passes. The script, however, never seeks to get at the heart of Aidan or Noah’s issues, and no character confronts them in any forceful way; their problems are solved largely by twists of fate or strong talking-tos. There’s an overall carelessness to Braff’s entire endeavor that belies his chosen subject matter, as if vaguely dressing his own creative issues up in more relatable struggles (money, religion, the nine-to-five grind, parenting woes, marital stagnancy, etc.) somehow renders them more universal. Instead, the film comes off as a frustrating and flippant approximation of life without the comforts of disposable income made by someone who seemingly has plenty.