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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wish I Was Here

Zach Braff’s Midlife Crisis

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Thirty-five is not the new 25 in Zach Braff’s latest turn as writer-director, Wish I Was Here. The mid-30s can be an unsettling milestone, especially if the road of life is leading to a let down.

Braff stars as Aidan, a chronically unemployed actor whose beautiful wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), is the breadwinner for him and their spunky kids, Grace and Tucker (Joey King, Pierce Gagnon). The 30-something couple muddles along until Aidan’s dad, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), stops paying tuition for the kids’ Orthodox Jewish school. Grace, devoted to Judaism, is crestfallen; Tucker cares little; but the reason for the cut-off casts a shadow over the family: Gabe has cancer and the treatment has drained his funds.

Wish I Was Here is a comedy and a life lesson. Braff plays the comedic moments by conjuring a pale ghost of Woody Allen as the slightly neurotic, seriously flummoxed protagonist driving across life’s speed bumps, around hurdles and into insurmountable barriers. Although forced to pull the kids out of yeshiva, the secular Aidan is unwilling to send them to their city’s decrepit public schools. He tries home schooling but gives up in the face of Grace’s eye-rolling rebuke to the idiocy of adults. She already knows more math than he’ll ever learn. Aidan goes to auditions but is never hired; his last job was in a dandruff shampoo commercial. Aidan’s brother Noah, who never fulfilled his promise as an IT genius, has slumped into trolldom, seldom emerging from his ratty mobile home. Gabe never forgave his sons for disappointing him by following their dreams into a cul-de-sac.

While the cast is likeable, Patinkin is the scene-stealer as he empties his quiver of sharp barbs against his children and their failures. Unlike his sons, he is acutely aware of the comedy inside life’s tragedy, yet he is a hard man nurturing his grievances. He must learn to soften his disapproval and accept that his expectations are not the only good path as the angel of death hovers at his door.

The life lessons are good ones but are served with heaping tablespoons of schmaltz. Everything is resolved as smoothly and routinely—and with utter lack of surprise—as the largely dull tunes from the film’s Starbucks-ready soundtrack. In terms of meaningfulness, Sarah’s situation is (sometimes) handled with a keener sense of reality than the rest of the plot. Aidan is oblivious to the toll charged on his wife for enabling him to chase his dream. She works in a soul-deadening office furnished with cubicles, computer terminals and a jerk coworker whose lewdness draws no rebuke from the boss. He thinks the jerk is funny and tells Sarah to “lighten up.” Also well put is Aidan and Sarah’s realization, shared by many younger couples, that they really have no certainty about parenting—or life.