Does Zach Braff's Modern Jewish Family 'Scrub' Up?

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Pierce Gagnon and Joey King in 'Wish I Was Here.'
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

Wish I Was Here Directed by Zach Braff; written by Zach Braff, Adam J. Braff; with Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Jim Parsons

Zach Braff is a sympathetic, if not very versatile, actor, best known for his starring role in the offbeat medical sitcom “Scrubs” (2001-2010), where his character represented a kind of steady yet childish sanity. A puerile reluctance to grow up and take responsibility has also defined his roles in the two movies he has directed: the 2004 low-budget indie hit “Garden State,” and now his latest film “Wish I Was Here.”

In both films Braff plays an actor, and not a very good or successful one at that. In “Garden State” he was a television actor whose career seemed to be going nowhere; now, a decade later, “Wish I Was Here” brings him back as an even less successful actor. After playing a young man living in the fog of a prescription drug addiction in “Garden State,” his new role seems at first more stable: he is Aidan Bloom, a devoted husband and father whose loving Jewish family includes his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), teenage daughter Grace (Joey King), and a younger son, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon).

Aidan’s main problem is that he cannot provide for his family. He still clings to his dream of an acting career, and while the movie gives us no reason to think he has any talent, we see him running from audition to audition, refusing to give up despite serial rejections. Sarah, meanwhile, continues to support him and their children with her dull office job.

The dominant figure in the family is Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), Aidan’s father. Aidan also has a brother, Noah (Josh Gad) – a geek with even bigger problems. Noah lives alone in a trailer and, in true geek style, likes superheroes and going to conventions in a superhero costume.

Zach Braff in Culver City, California, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014.Credit: AP

As in “Garden State,” the fate of an important family member sets the main plot crisis in motion. The hero of “Garden State” returns to his hometown after his mother dies; at the beginning of “Wish I Was Here,” Gabe informs Aidan that he can no longer pay his grandchildren’s tuition at their private Jewish school because his cancer has returned, and he needs the money for an experimental treatment that might save his life.

Gabe’s relationship with his sons is strained, because he considers both of them to be failures. While Aidan accepts this judgment, Noah has cut all ties with his father and refuses to renew them, even when he learns that Gabe may be dying.

Based on these situations, Braff and his cowriter brother, Adam J. Braff, have made a sentimental family comedy that, aside from its occasionally entertaining Jewish aspect, feels like too well-trodden cinematic terrain. Not a single moment manages to surprise us, and on occasion we may wonder why we should care about this rather dull family at all.

Of course, an ordinary family with ordinary problems such as parenting and making a living can become the subject of a fascinating work, but the Braff brothers do not succeed in doing that.

“Wish I Was Here” is not painful to watch, because the characters are sympathetic. But it lurches from one familiar situation to the next, and follows a narrative path that we can easily predict. As might be expected of an American picture, the movie celebrates family values, even when the family in question has problems. The result feels somehow tired. It never soars, and, even as it progresses, seems stuck in one place (much like its hero’s acting career).

The Braff brothers tried to say something in “Wish I Was Here” about the commitment and faith that hold families together. But their hesitancy allows the message to dissolve into the overall banality of the movie. The actors perform capably within this limiting framework, but that is not enough to create a satisfying comic and sentimental experience.