Movie Review: Braff makes ‘Wish I Was Here’ more of the same

Marching towards adulthood: Pierce Gagnon, Zach Braff and Joey King in
Marching towards adulthood: Pierce Gagnon, Zach Braff and Joey King in "Wish I Was Here."

“Wish I Was Here”
★★★

Ten years after his indie hit “Garden State,” writer/director/star Zach Braff is back with another quirky, wistful dramedy about a man-child actor who’s lost his direction in life. Only this time, a few gray hairs are showing.

There’s no direct connection to “Garden State” in “Wish I Was Here” (have we now, as a culture, officially given up on the subjunctive tense?), but the similarities are numerous.

Like 20-something Andrew, 30-something Aidan has stalled out at one of life’s crossroads while contending with a disapproving father and a large dose of existential angst, and the only salvation in sight is the love of a supportive woman.

This time it’s Sarah (Kate Hudson at her best), his eternally giving wife, who works at a soul-numbing job complete with a sexually harassing co-worker so Aidan can pursue his dream of being an actor, though his last job was a long-ago appearance in a dandruff commercial.

Sarah also supports the family in their suburban LA home while Aidan’s conservative Jewish dad Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) keeps up a steady stream of mild shaming while paying for kids Grace and Tucker (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) to go to a yeshiva.

Not for long, though. It turns out that Gabe has an aggressive form of cancer, forcing him to withdraw funds from the kids to pay for an experimental treatment. And eventually, after much hemming and hawing, forcing Aidan to grow up, at least a little.

Braff, best known for his starring role in the sitcom “Scrubs,” is basically a comic actor and writer, seems to be most comfortable laying out “Wish’s” numerous quips and sight gags (during a home-schooling stint he teaches his kids the difference between Al Qaida and Al Roker and he gets some nice mileage out of an old rabbi on a Segway).

Like “Garden State,” however, this film is also heavy on the whimsy and pathos and some of it comes across a bit precious. Not all of it, mind; a few of those moments work quite nicely. And it’s a plus that he weighs in on big topics including fatherhood, brotherhood (Josh Gad plays his depressed, trailer-dwelling slacker/genius sibling), manhood, marriage, faith, the pursuit of dreams and the acceptance of responsibility.

Braff has taken a media beating for funding “Wish You Were Here” primarily with Kickstarter donations, with lots of critics kvetching that he should left that avenue for artists who don’t have his industry connections. That seems fair enough, yet all those donations clearly mean there are a lot of fans out there who wanted to see a follow-up to “Garden State.”

It’s likely many of them will be satisfied, which could mean he’ll do something like this again in another 10 years. If so, it’ll be interesting to see if his 40-something alter-ego has a few more things about life figured out.

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