Sundance Review: 'Wish I Was Here'

If Zach Braff’s decade-old directorial debut, “Garden State,” was his ode to the emotionally numb misfits of Hal Ashby’s heyday, then “Wish I Was Here” is decidedly his James L. Brooks picture, sprawling between plot lines and shifting between tones for longer than it ought to, but laden with enough pockets of truth to make you wish it had been better, more restrained, more disciplined, more trusting in its own emotional sensitivity to spare us all manner of dorky detours.

Braff stars as Aidan, a struggling actor with a decreasingly patient wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), and two children, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon). The kids must drop out of Hebrew school once Aidan’s father, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), can no longer afford to cover their tuition upon the return of his once-cleared cancer, leaving Aidan to home-school them while helping brother Noah (Josh Gad) come to terms with Saul’s imminent passing.

That is to say nothing of Noah’s pursuit of a cosplaying hottie next door (Ashley Greene), or the recurring sexual harassment at Sarah’s workplace, or the fact that Tucker often keeps power tools beneath his pillow when not precociously repeating phrases like “poon tang.” Setting aside the fact that Braff has grown on-screen from a twentysomething Angeleno actor saddled with crippling ennui and lingering daddy issues to a thirtysomething Angeleno actor saddled with crippling ennui and lingering daddy issues, much of "Here” is populated with such egregiously phony asides, what with Grace shaving her head in a misguided fit of religious fervor, rabbis crashing into walls on their Segways, and the recurrence of Aidan's spacesuit-clad daydreams from childhood, thuddingly metaphorical flights of fancy that would make Walter Mitty hard.

How apt, then, that Aidan decries the lack of respect given to his dreams by his long-suffering wife and long-charitable father. It's difficult to give each character's career and spiritual crises a fair shake when our lead is too busy turning unemployment and home-schooling into a life-affirming stay-cation accompanied by a Jon Brion-like score.

When the proceedings inevitably take a turn from talking half-boners and the like towards the burden of terminal illness, Hudson and Patinkin in particular nail a handful of emotionally resonant exchanges that hit home harder than any moment in "Garden State" did. Sadly, much of what surrounds these reckonings with reality is so far-flung from tangible human interactions so as to alienate the viewer from truly investing in these developments.

"Wish I Was Here" is the kind of dramedy where a scene can start with raucous costumed sex and end with the tearfully delivered line, “I know you don’t believe in God, but maybe you can believe in family.” With two features now under his belt, there is little denying that Braff is as earnest behind the camera as he often is in front of it, but there is a difference between wearing one's heart on their sleeve and rolling it around in glitter and macaroni before slapping it on the screen.

SCORE: 5.7 / 10