Just around the 45-minute mark, Zach Braff’s ego trip Wish I Was Here formally transitions from “bad” to “embarrassing.” After establishing what passes for characters in boring, dramaless tell-blather, Braff’s character absconds with his children in, what in the real world, would be a terrifying decision by a father at the end of his rope whose actions are a clear sign of dangerous instability. Instead, because its a Zach Braff movie, he leaves an envelope with money and a deeply patronizing and sexist note – “go get a massage” – for his stable and supportive pixie dream wife (Kate Hudson) and she just smiles like “Oh, you.” It’s at this moment where director-Braff chimes in with Bon Iver’s “Holocene,” a gorgeous and emotional song you may remember from 2011. After that he and his children stand on a cliff, staring into the abyss. Later, a young girl dances around a fire. No, really.
Garden State, to the extent it did anything right, had a genuine feeling of discovery and some actual sensitivity and insight in merging emotional moments with just the right waiting-to-be-discovered indie-pop song. Pretty much everyone who would bother to see Wish I Was Here – which is hopefully nobody beyond your unlucky critic and his equally-unlucky wife – has already heard “Holocene,” and has some moment in their 2011 life that meant something to them connected to Holocene. In 2004 indie was just coming into its own, and Pitchfork was first proving it could move records; in 2014, we’re all wondering whether Lana Del Rey means indie is dead. That cringing feeling when someone washed up tries to recreate their old magic? It’s so much worse when they’re washed up before they’re 40.
Zach Braff is Aiden Bloom, a very successful bad actor playing an unsuccessful bad actor who has a gorgeous and infinitely-patient wife, brilliant children, a stern but ultimately-loving father (Manty Patinkin, so much better than this) who subsidizes his bad decisions by keeping his children out of LA’s public schools (class and race in general is dealt with terribly throughout, as much through neglect and befuddling unawareness as anything), and a nerdy brother (Josh Gad) who is a nerd and dislikes the stern father for being a stern father. There are emotional revelations, or something. There is barely any plot, and what there is is what Jeb Lund called “sub-moronic plotbarf.” Stern father spends the whole damn movie dying.
Zach Braff took a few million dollars from a few thousand suckers to make this thing, but in the end the biggest sucker may have been Zach Braff for believing he had a movie to make worth watching. So deeply committed to his own facile vision of family, faith, and the occasional quirk-squirt that he obviously couldn’t be bothered to ask for, or show the slightest bit of receptiveness to, any constructive input. The movie involves religious Judaism and, in spite of Braff’s own Jewish upbringing, demonstrates only a weirdly superficial familiarity with religious Judaism padded with some crap Braff Googled and with absolutely no purpose or direction. The movie depicts an average-person workplace that could only have been conceived of by somebody who has no idea what an average-person workplace is like. The movie depicts sexual harassment in an absurdly infantile manner that ends up using it as a plot instrument to further Braff’s character’s emotional development and character arc, which is as offensive as it is worthless, because Braff’s character has no arc and does not develop.
All the writing is terrible. People preface saying ironic things by saying ‘ironically’ and most of the dialogue for the final hour are wisdom-dense unbearably-on-point no-subtext wooden sermons that make us wonder, if these people are saying such observant and thoughtful and insightful things to each other, why they have all these problems at all. Zach Braff’s character pointlessly voices opinions that Zach Braff clearly has. Braff’s character is the most boring and worst-acted in the entire ensemble so of course the movie is about him. There is a weird sci-fi motif that, though derivative, almost has a moment or two of melancholic resonance that makes you think that would be the better movie, until you realize it would have to be written, directed, and starring Braff and so it would probably be just as terrible as the movie you are stuck watching now.
The directing is terrible. There are endless close-ups without number, people crying inexplicably, people happy about sad things and sad about happy things. When Braff’s father finally dies after a dozen scenes of being nearly dead, we cut immediately to Braff, in the ocean, golden sun glancing off his skin, because of course the real meaning of a life is how it makes Zach Braff feel. There are jarring edits and shifts in tone, there’s actually another Paul Simon song, a great one that makes absolutely no sense in context and made me damn angry for its abuse here, and there’s a scene in a hospital where, in a desperately-needed moment between horrible speechifying, the lyrics of a pop song are actually loudly and clearly singing the title of the movie.
Not to mention the rampant sexism throughout, from endorsing the horror of parents at a young girl making her own choices to treating sexual harassment as a joke to resolutely refusing to demonstrate any insight into women or any of the challenges unique to being a woman of any age in modern America. This is the second consecutive movie that Braff has made where his character has been haunted by a dead mother, and it’s starting to feel like the fullest expression of his view of women as existing primarily as instruments of male development – as opposed to independent people with wants and needs – is to have the women most important to his protagonists be those that he doesn’t have to even bother to write a single line of dialogue for. It’s a shame that Nathan Rabin chose this week to renounce his coinage of “manic pixie dream girl,” since this is the same week that the creator of the model’s very archetype returned to give us an entire manic pixie dream world where everyone – though especially women – exist to be quirky catalysts of middle-class white dudes defeating mild ennui.
I admit to not being the biggest fan of Garden State, but my wife was, and she spend most of the movie covering her eyes in some form or another of horror and discomfort. Garden State did some things right: letting better actors take the spotlight, letting images tell stories, using music insightfully, caring enough about secondary characters to draw them with sharpness and color, allowing the weepy family drama to unfold in bits and pieces. Wish I Was Here does all of this wrong, but still insists on doing it all, even as the fundamental nature of the story, its teller, and their context are drastically different. None of this stops Braff, however, who faithfully transcribed and recorded his own onanistic fan-fiction in the pathetic and misguided belief that anyone cares. In the end, the scene that best encapsulates Wish I Was Here is the one where someone walks in on Zach Braff masturbating.