I doubt I’m the only person who loved Zach Braff’s Garden State in 2004 but has been hesitant to watch it again for fear it won’t hold up. It spoke to a particular demographic at a particular time. I’m no longer at that stage of life, and it’s no longer 2004, and it’s possible Garden State would strike me now the way it struck its detractors then: twee, precious, quirky, and slap-worthy.
I’m even warier now that I’ve seen Braff’s sloppy followup, Wish I Was Here, which is phony, shallow, and completely disconnected from reality. To make matters worse, it thinks it’s sincere, deep, and realistic. Sometimes you get the impression a movie was made by cynical people who didn’t believe what they were peddling but figured they could get audiences to buy it. That’s not the case here. I think Braff is sincere about every aspect of Wish I Was Here, and that he thinks it says exactly what he wanted it to say. He’s just wrong, that’s all.
Braff, co-writing with his brother Adam, stars as self-centered b-hole Aidan Bloom, a struggling L.A. actor who, unlike most struggling L.A. actors, has a wife and kids yet won’t even consider getting a day job. His wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), makes enough at her dull office gig to basically support the family, though they’re reliant on Aidan’s aging father, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), to pay for the kids’ Hebrew school. Aidan, an agnostic Jew, is glib about Judaism, mocking every aspect of his children’s education one minute, harassing his father to pay the tuition bill the next.
When old Saul’s money runs out (thanks a lot, terminal cancer expenses!), Aidan has to homeschool the children — 12-year-old Grace (Joey King) and 6-year-old Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) — because he hates public schools, because he got beaten up when he was a kid. Then he doesn’t actually homeschool them, either, because it’s hard and he doesn’t take anything seriously. Meanwhile, he criticizes his stoner geek brother, Noah (Josh Gad), for living in a trailer and not having a job.
This probably sounds like the set-up for a story where the jerky protagonist gradually realizes he’s immature and starts taking steps to redeem himself. Two problems, though. One, the movie doesn’t seem to recognize just how bad Aidan is, presenting him as a lovable rascal rather than a negligent husband and father and all-around bastard. Two, when the movie is over (no spoilers here), Aidan has not changed. By sheer luck he has stumbled into a better employment situation, but he has hardly even acknowledged his past failures, much less rectified them. Yet here comes another inspiring alt-rock song on the soundtrack to convey the idea that Aidan has fulfilled his arc and found redemption!
This already-thin story is watered down further by extraneous characters and subplots. Uncle Noah meets a Comic-Con furry (Ashley Greene) and sets out to build a costume better than hers. Grace shaves her head on a whim. Saul has a dog that pees everywhere that he needs Aidan to take care of. Sarah is sexually harassed by a pervy cubicle-mate (Michael Weston), giving the Braff brothers an opportunity to demonstrate how laughably out of touch they are with real-life office politics as well as their own characters: There isn’t a company in America that would fail to discipline someone for saying what this guy says to Sarah, and Sarah isn’t the kind of pushover who would tolerate it if they did.
Cut the furry, the head-shaving, the dog, and the co-worker out of the movie altogether and nothing would change except it’d be shorter and less slipshod. Same goes for the details that don’t occupy enough screen time to be “subplots” but don’t add anything, either: an elderly rabbi riding a Segway in a hospital hallway, for example, or young Tucker carrying a power drill everywhere he goes. Because of one (1) throwaway line about Grace not being able to swim, there’s a scene at the end of the movie where Aidan takes her to a pool so she can jump in and be a metaphor.
The kernel of legitimacy at the center of the movie is Aidan’s spiritual crisis in the face of his father’s impending death. He wants to know whether God exists and whether life is supposed to make sense. He meets with rabbis to discuss these issues (it’s like a less serious A Serious Man), and he tries to reconnect with Saul. But Braff’s idea of revelation is to have Aidan take the kids to the Mojave Desert with the express purpose of having an epiphany, and then to have them test-drive a luxury car that Saul always coveted but couldn’t afford.
(Let me be clear: they don’t take Saul with them on the test drive. They just take the drive and think about Saul, and throw their hands in the air to feel the breeze, and now they are all more connected, and somebody like Arcade Fire has earned some more song royalties.)
But aside from being larded with irrelevant scenes and sitcom-dumb jokes, having a protagonist with no character arc, addressing real human issues with careless superficiality, and wasting a rare good performance by Kate Hudson, the movie isn’t too bad. It’s got a grown man watching his father die, and that’s always good for a few tears, right?
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