Me Party: Messy "Wish I Was Here" searches for meaning, comes off false

Wish I Was Here (2014)
114 min., rated R.

With the arrival of "Wish I Was Here," a follow-up ten years later to writer-director-producer-star Zach Braff's 2004 adroitly quirky indie charmer "Garden State," one can't help but root for this $2 million, Kickstarter-funded project and then just wish it were better than it really is. His feature debut was adorably offbeat and charming yet truthful, whereas here his sophomore effort is uneven, coming off alternately pleasant and annoying, remotely honest and phony. On a moment-to-moment basis, it sometimes works. As a whole, the film is a meandering, overstuffed mixed bag. His passion and earnestness cannot be discounted, but alas, Braff (who co-wrote the script with his brother, Adam J. Braff) seems to be out of touch this time around when he already came of age as a more-disciplined filmmaker before. "Wish I Was Here" is just never as organically messy or as transcendently life-affirming as it wants to be.

Braff has cast himself yet again as a struggling Los Angeles actor, this time named Aidan Bloom, who's in his mid-thirties and has been stuck since getting a dandruff commercial. He has a patient, bread-winning wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), and two kids, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), but it seems that getting so much bad news all at once spins his life into shambles. His prickly father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), has just informed Aidan that his cancer has come back. The kids have to drop out of Hebrew private school because their now-dying grandfather can no longer pay their way. This leaves Aidan not only trying to find acting work, but also home-school (read: putting on "Reading Rainbow") Grace and Tucker and get his lazy, slobby, supposedly brilliant younger brother Noah (Josh Gad) out of his trailer once learning of Dad's looming expiration date. Oh, and the film has other things to contend with, like Noah creating the greatest costume at Comic Con so he can woo the hot furry-next-door (Ashley Greene) and mending his estranged relationship with Gabe; Sarah supporting Aidan in pursuing his still-unfulfilled dream by maintaining the status quo and working a dead-end cubicle job; and sixth-grader Grace shaving her head during a religious crisis.

For being a soul-searching dramedy, "Wish I Was Here" has trouble finding itself. It just isn't cohesive, at one point transitioning from terminal cancer and religion to a comedic sex scene. There is a through-line about epiphanies, seizing the moment and taking charge of one's life, the film opening with and then sparingly sprinkling in daydreams of Aidan as a heroic spaceman on a distant planet, but these interludes just feel like one more fanciful flourish and tortured metaphor the film did not need. With every nice moment it digs up, the film still finds ways to grow more heavy-handed and unconvincingly trite as it goes, taking a dreamer's reality and then pushing comedy where it doesn't fit, like an Orthodox rabbi on a Segway running into a wall. It's as if Zach Braff sold himself short, thinking he wouldn't make another movie after this, so he crammed every idea into the shooting script and called it a sprawling slice-of-life that recalls an equally indulgent but inferior version of Judd Apatow's underrated "This Is 40." Aidan sitting in the waiting room of a doctor's office and turning to an empty pamphlet stand, labeled "This pamphlet could save your life," is good stuff. A bold Al Roker/Al Qaeda joke also earns a light chuckle. But did Noah really need a love interest? And, off in its own little movie, an extraneous plot point concerning Sarah being sexually harassed at work by an obnoxious creep (Michael Weston) who talks to his penis not only feels uncomfortably wedged in, but the way it's handled is foolishly disconnected from reality, and how Sarah has been written and then handles the situation seems uncharacteristic. 

As an on-screen performer, Braff has an innate likability and relatability about him. But, in playing Aidan, the film doesn't seem cognizant of the character being such a cavalier smartass who wouldn't think of just getting a day job like a normal starving artist and then unjustly lets him off the hook without changing or learning much. In a scene meant to be funny, Aidan takes his kids to a car dealership to take out an Aston Martin for a spin and tells the floor salesman ("Scrubs" pal Donald Faison) that Grace, who has rebelliously shaved her head and picked out a hot pink wig, is sick. Apparently, all Aidan needs to do to grow out of his arrested-development stage is to take his kids for a joy ride with their family "swear jar" in tow, camp out, do some backyard labor, and later say goodbye to his father on his death bed. Kate Hudson is effervescent as always, and while her role as the supportive, long-suffering wife could have been undemanding, she's able to bring out some of her most well-honed work here since Penny Lane in "Almost Famous." She and Mandy Patinkin (who brings gravitas as Aidan's father) nail a genuinely heartfelt scene in a hospital room that surprisingly doesn't strain for mawkishness. As Aidan and Sarah's daughter Grace, who may be more mature than her father, Joey King continues to show a wise-beyond-her-years confidence without ever slipping and becoming one of those mug-ready child actors. On the other hand, Pierce Gagnon, who blew this reviewer away in 2012's "Looper" as a telekinetic child prodigy, is instructed to become just that as Tucker, who likes sleeping with a power drill under his pillow and carrying it wherever he goesjust because.

There's a lustrous polish to Braff's filmmaking rather than a do-it-yourself scruffiness, which is impressive. Then again, he employs two commonplace stand-bys that need to just go out of commission: the urinating dog and someone expressing their freedom by riding in the back of a convertible with their hands up. The emotional moments aren't shown a deftly delicate hand, or even a sneakily manipulative one, but they're not intolerably cloying, either. Even Braff's complimentary indie-rock soundtrack (including tracks by The Shins, The Weepies and Jump Little Children) doesn't stand out this time around. What surrounds a kosher performance here and an amusing Jewish joke there is a lack of focus. It just has such an exorbitant amount of vying characters and threads, with a tidy, pat bow on every character arc. Trying to mold in too many things, "Wish I Was Here" searches for meaning and cohesion, but sadly, it comes up short. The parts are better than the whole, so maybe Braff can come back with another project that might be sitting in his drawer.