The swear jar isn't as cute as Braff thinks it is.
I'm not one of Garden State's belated haters. Zach Braff's portrait of generational anomie and mid-Aughties indie-film mores was on point when it was released in 2004. But a decade's gone by, and things change. Whether Braff has changed too is another matter. His latest film, Wish I Was Here, provides some clues.
Much as his directorial debut focused on a certain kind of twentysomething, Wish I Was Here clearly wants to impart something about what late-30s life is like when it's troubled by unruly kids, ailing parents and creative aspirations complicated by financial realities. Braff has an ever-clever eye for observational humor, but too often the script, written with his brother Adam, feels reverse-engineered to manufacture iconic imagery.
Nearly every conversation in the film comes trick-loaded. For instance, when a swear jar is name-checked, it's obvious that this concept will lead to a slo-mo shot scored to an obsessively pruned Spotify playlist. The swear jar is Chekhov's gun maxim -- that every element in a narrative be necessary and irreplaceable -- retooled in a painfully twee way. It's just bad. Worse is watching Braff speak to his onscreen kids. He uses a special voice: uncertain, schoolmarmish, inflecting upward into a question mark, as if he's nervously trying to educate a short-tempered dog that might lunge at any second. Then there's an ongoing fantasy motif that puts Braff in a spacesuit with an alien/robot sidekick hovering over his shoulder. I can't find the words for the wince. It is the very worst.
Still, Wish I Was Here has moments of transcendence. They don't involve Braff the actor, who starts the film as an unshaved sarcophagus of bile and glibness, a brittle act he swiftly drops in favor of a too-cuddly portrait of waywardness. But Braff the director has cherry-picked the best members of his ensemble cast to explore the topic of religion. Young actress Joey King is great as Braff's observant daughter, and Mandy Patinkin portrays his cancer-riddled, Orthodox Jewish dad. A theater-trained actor with enough film smarts to know you don't always have to project to the rafters, Patinkin owns the movie with a sotto voce bedside chat with Kate Hudson, who plays Braff's wife. It's beautifully performed. This scene's restrained camerawork is also a treat.
Unfortunately, though Patinkin and King wrangle with spirituality in sincere and specific ways, the rest of this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink film feels like a jumble.