In "Wish I Was Here," Zach Braff's daughter (Joey King) has a pink wig. Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features
'Wish I Was Here' Director: Zach Braff Stars: Zach Braff, Josh Gad Rating: R 2 (out of 5) Globes
The terrible secret about Zach Braff is that he has some talent. “Garden State” has legions of ardent fans, but it has as many detractors of equal passion, who have seized upon its mega-quirkiness, upon its mega-earnestness, upon its gruesome toggling between the two, and upon the way Braff, in the lead, ended every sentence with a question mark. (Which was profoundly annoying?) But it was also periodically genuinely amusing, sometimes even tolerable, but more often ruined by bad gags and cloying sentiment.
The same thing happens in “Wish I Was Here,” his belated follow-up as a writer-director-star. It’s more successful than “Garden State,” even if it finds him in a similar place. As there, he here plays a struggling actor. But he’s older as well as happily married (to Kate Hudson) and with kids. More important, he’s more confident and often (and actually enjoyably) irritated by the grotesques in his life.
There are any number of directions this can go. Rather than pick one main storyline, Braff smashes together roughly five. Hard up for cash, Aidan is forced to remove his daughter and son from yeshiva and home-school them. This would make a terrible movie, so it’s probably good that Braff quickly forgets about it, getting distracted by his attempts to tend to his reclusive, bitter, secret genius of a brother (Josh Gad), as well as to his stubborn father (Mandy Patinkin), who’s on death’s door.
Mandy Patinkin (next to Zach Braff) is one of the better parts of "Wish I Was Here." Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features
That last thread is “Wish I Was Here”’s best. It’s genuinely moving, not because of the wishy-washy faith talk that finds Aidan, an agnostic, chatting with priests. It’s because of the hard line it takes on death. Patinkin is a proud man buried under an endless beard, who calmly rattles off withering appraisals of Aidan’s poor life choices to his face. But as his voice weakens further you sense a man afraid of having lived a poor life himself and hoping only to leave it on a high note. These scenes, usually (but not always) underplayed, stare death in the face, not getting tied up in vague religious chatter but confronting disappointments head-on.
The rest is not so good, but has its moments. As in “Garden State,” Braff the filmmaker does think in visuals, and there are a number of purely imagistic gags. The best of them speak to a mordant anxiety. The worst are toxically whimsical (as in a bit where Aidan sings a song about geometry to his kids) or weirdly ethnic in target. As if to remind us he once lodged nine seasons on a broad sitcom, Braff likes to do funny accents and he overloads the film with gags about Jews (an old rabbi on a Segway or watching cat videos on YouTube) that feel like weak knock-offs from the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man.”
Then there’s Braff’s sensitive side, represented by his usual soundtrack of sullen-yet-inspiring songs he just can’t wait for you to hear. These invade otherwise innocent scenes or power numerous montages of either moping or laughing. “Wish I Was Here” is a classic sophomore effort following a hit debut: It’s over-packed, under-organized and both arrogant and sincere. But it knows what it is and knows its audience. A scene where Aidan takes his daughter (Joey King) to a wig store (“You can buy any wig you want, as long as it’s unique and amazing like you”) has the perfect fusion of quick and corn that drive his fans and his haters crazy.