Review: ‘Wish I Was Here’ will make Zach Braff fans and haters different kinds of crazy

In "Wish I Was Here," Zach Braff's daughter (Joey King) has a pink wig. Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features
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
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.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge


NYPD: Suspect dead after two U.S. Marshals, cop…

A suspected sex offender died during a shootout inside a West Village smoke shop that left two U.S. Marshals and an NYPD detective wounded, officials said.


OkCupid admits to Facebook-style experimenting on customers

By Sarah McBrideSAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - OkCupid, a top U.S. matchmaking website, intentionally mismatched users to test its technology, the IAC/InterActive Corp service said on…


MTA fares still increasing 4 percent in newly…

The agency said the 4 percent increases, previously announced in December, will remain steady even as the MTA deals with increasing labor costs.


De Blasio, Bratton defend city's efforts after Eric…

Mayor Bill de Blasio justified the city's response to the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died while in police custody earlier this month.


Interview: Brendan Gleeson on the way 'Calvary' depicts…

Brendan Gleeson talks about how his new film "Calvary" began over drinks and how his character here is the opposite of the lead in "The Guard."


'Get on Up' producer Mick Jagger on the…

Mick Jagger, a producer on the James Brown biopic "Get on Up," talks about the time had to tell the singer some bad news and his favorite JB record.


'Glee' star Lea Michele to appear on 'Sons…

"Glee" star Lea Michele has been confirmed as a guest star in the final season of "Sons of Anarchy."


TV watch list, Monday, July 28: 'The Bachelorette'…

See Andi Dorfman make her big choice on tonight's 'Bachelorette' finale.


Computer to Jets: Start Michael Vick over Geno…

Jets general manager John Idzik says the choice of who starts between second-year quarterback Geno Smith and veteran Michael Vick will be a “Jets decision.”


Yankees looking to trade for Josh Willingham: Report

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported Sunday the Yankees are interested in Twins outfielder Josh Willingham.


Joe Torre: I'm in Hall of Fame because…

Joe Torre spent 18 years putting together a near Hall of Fame career as a player. But it was the 12 years he spent as…


Yankees GM Brian Cashman breaks down art of…

The action frequently accelerates as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches, as it will on Thursday.


Babson College tops list of best colleges for…

Money magazine has just released its inaugural list of "The Best Colleges for Your Money" -- and the answers have surprised many. Babson College, which…


NYC teens learn how to develop apps during…

Through a program sponsored by CampInteractive, the high schoolers designed their own community-focused apps.


The Ministry of Silly Walks app is both…

Monty Python have dug into their back catalogue for cash-ins once more, but with the Ministry of Silly Walks app, they've made something that's fun too.


Zagat releases '30 Under 30' list

Zagat releases a list of the people changing the food and drink industry across the country.