Gee, life is tough. But "We move forward—that's the only direction God gave us." These and other Big Important Life Lessons can be yours for the low, low price of a movie ticket to Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff's mawkish new comedy-drama. Were you to sit down and write a movie with the instruction that it be funny, sad, and inspirational, you're likely to come up with better ideas than Braff and his brother Adam J. Braff, who co-scripted this tepid Generation X version of a James L. Brooks film. Zach Braff (best known for TV's Scrubs) made his filmmaking debut with the ten-year-old Garden State, once popular among hipsters. While Garden State was no great shakes, Wish I Was Here proves less charming and conspicuously lazier.
Braff plays 35-year-old struggling actor Aidan Bloom, a ridiculous man-child defined by empathic whining (star Braff is director Braff's worst enemy with his overcooked sitcomedic performance). He's got a wife Sarah (Kate Hudson), daughter Grace (Joey King), son Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), brother Noah (Josh Gad) and father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin, wasting his talent) in the picture, as well as a handful of middle-class, midlife crises. First, he can no longer afford to send his kids to the yeshiva anymore, and public school being unthinkable, Aidan runs to his father for cash. Inconveniently, Dad needs his cash for himself, having earmarked it to fight late-stage cancer.
This new crisis forces Aidan down two new avenues: home-schooling his kids (which he does with all the dedication, preparation, and skill of a world-class moron) and convincing his social-misfit blogger brother to put an end to giving their dad the silent treatment, before it's too late to bury the hatchet (there's also a subplot involving Sarah being sexually harassed at work—sounds hilarious, no?). These crises all snag on Aidan's male pride, since his wife is the breadwinner, and he feels a failure at providing for and protecting his family.
For lack of any genuine feeling or wit, the Braffs goose this all along—over a long, long two hours—with setup-punchline rhythms and lamely goofy sight gags (like a rabbi on a Segway). This is the sort of movie where a babysitter duct-tapes children to a chair, and a boy carries around a security drill wherever he goes, and characters who just need to feel some joy in their lives lie to a car dealer to test drive an Aston Martin convertible (everybody put your hands in the air!). Stop me when any of this resonates with your real-life experience. And nobody but screenwriters talk like this, either: "Eventually, things get tragic enough, then they circle back to comedy."
As with Garden State, when all else fails, there's always source music to grasp at audience heartstrings, so when things are really flagging, count on "Tangled Up in Blue" or "The Obvious Child" or maybe some Bon Iver or Coldplay to come to the rescue. (Braff even quotes "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to show he means business.) Braff infamously got his project to completion by begging the last of the budget on Kickstarter. As the film's title implies, the lights are on, but nobody's home, except perhaps a guy who wants your cash.