By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Because he wished he was here, Zach Braff traded in his scrubs for the four hats he’s now wearing.
That’s because Wish I Was Here is actor-screenwriter-producer-director Braff’s followup dramedy -– a spiritual sequel, if you will — to his 2004 charmer of a directorial debut, Garden State.
That was a movie about dating; this is a movie about marriage. But both are about love and loss.
It’s a tonal juggling act, with broad character comedy alternating with heart-on-its-sleeve sentimentality and fantasy inserts. That is to say, it’s a mixed bag with a generous number of grace notes delivered by a game cast.
Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a selfish, struggling, ever-auditioning, usually rejected, 35-year-old Los Angeles actor who hasn’t landed a role or a gig in a long time, and who has fantasies and science fiction daydreams as brief escapes from his problematic life.
His patient but nervous wife, Sarah, played by Kate Hudson, as the sole provider, does uninspiring data-entry work in the water department office where she has to deal with workplace sexual harassment in order to pay the bills.
They have two children: pre-teenager Grace (Joey King) and her younger brother, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon).
Aidan’s ailing father, Gabe, a religiously observant patriarch played by Mandy Patinkin, announces that he can no longer pay Aidan’s kids’ tuition at the Jewish school they attend because he needs the money for treatment for his aggressive form of cancer, which has returned.
Gabe is obviously closer to death than anyone in the family thought. And because Aidan refuses to send the kids to the shaky local public school, the family is in crisis mode.
The solution he comes up with: he’ll home-school them.
Meanwhile, Aidan’s reclusive and unemployed brother, Noah (Josh Gad), a trailer dweller and comic-con devotee -– an even more blatant underachiever than Aidan — refuses to see their dad, even now.
And Jim Parsons (star of television’s “Big Bang Theory”), Donald Faison (Braff’s co-cast members on the TV sitcom “Scrubs”), and Ashley Greene (from Twilight, playing the fetching convention attendee that Noah falls hard for) contribute effective supporting turns to the proceedings.
The director co-wrote the overloaded screenplay with his brother, Adam J. Braff, and their script contains an interesting exploration into faith and meaning. But they’ve also embedded enough subplots and narrative asides to compromise the effect and impact of the climax and resolution.
Interestingly, the production was somewhat controversially kickstarted by a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, which pretty much assured Braff a level of creative control but also allowed him a level of self-indulgence that probably accounts for the film’s occasional missteps.
Braff’s character is nowhere near as appealing or sympathetic as he was in Garden State, but Hudson and Patinkin register vividly and convincingly enough to round off that edge, and the two of them have one quite touching bedside scene between them that features the script’s best writing.
Hudson is especially strong this time out, contributing a natural depth and reminding us, following a rash of indifferent outings, of the level of quality work she is capable of, best exemplified by her terrific, Oscar-nominated performance in Almost Famous in 2000.
So we’ll act out 2½ stars out of 4. Although you may well wish that Wish I Was Here was better, you’ll nevertheless enjoy catching up with, a decade later, the concerns and creativity of the auteurist creator of Garden State.