There’s something fitting in the work of Zach Braff — the star of successful television comedy series Scrubs, which sang, danced, and laughed its way through the madcap years of med school residency for its hapless trio of would-be doctors — because Braff, settling in at the helm of his second feature film, has a not-exactly morbid curiosity with life and death. The end of things serves as the starting point for Braff, the first step for those left behind toward mourning, growing up and entering the next phase of the unknown.
Garden State begins at one of those ends intended to represent a new beginning. Braff’s Andrew Largeman makes the journey home for his mother’s funeral, but he’s been away for a decade and arrives loaded with burdensome troubles, both old and new. What he desperately needs is comfort and assistance accepting who he is, but it is fascinating to watch Braff — as writer, director and star — tightrope-walk along the slimmest wire imaginable without slipping too far into what would have come across as comic absurdity or tear-jerking self-pity.
And it is here that Braff returns, 10 years later, once again firmly in multi-hyphenate control for Wish I Was Here. So much is familiar, what with Braff as Aidan Bloom, another lost soul. Bloom is an out of work actor with a wife (Kate Hudson) spinning the hamster wheel in a dead-end job to make household ends meet for their children, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King), who attend a Hebrew school thanks to the strings-laden support of Aidan’s father (Mandy Patinkin). Aidan’s mother is long gone, but his brother Noah (Josh Gad), a neurotic waste of genius, hangs around the perimeter.
Aidan looks like a careless and largely care-free dreamer, but over the course of the story it becomes clear that, for all his wandering and questioning, he’s somehow found a way to keep everyone connected and open to the possibility of discovering some lessons about life and its meaning.
Things start off with flip digs at religion, the film industry and the slackerish pursuit of personal fulfillment. But, as with Garden State, the narrative settles into a deeper groove, a dramatic and surprisingly poetic state that is emotionally heavy with regret and blame, although possessed with the potential to lay these burdens down.
The film ripens as it examines the impact of the decisions we make as parents and children, individuals and lovers, people of faith and those engaged in their own doubts and fears of a lack of spiritual guidance. Through it all, death looms. Not just the hole left by the Bloom matriarch, but the inevitable end for Aidan and Noah’s father who is losing a desperate battle with cancer. Again, a Braff character must deal with replacing supportive figures — this time male as well as female.
Wish I Was Here is a story of redemption, full of faith, hope, grace and humanity. That sounds like a pretentious mess along the lines of Paul Haggis’ Crash or his latest effort Third Person, and Braff could have easily fallen into that abyss. Instead, it is his light touch that saves him and the proceedings. He offers up the truly absurd for simple jokes — his incessantly juvenile picking at Judaism and its practitioners, his facile attempts to homeschool his children after withdrawing them from Hebrew school — but he never overplays the broad aspects. He doesn’t have time to waste because he appreciates that the lessons carry the real punch.
And the lessons are small. Better yet, let’s define them as intimate and complex. Wish I Was Here doesn’t dare to provide big picture answers to the mysteries of living a good and meaningful life, but each character, even the children, come to realize a moment of happiness that will serve as a touchstone for them as they move forward. There’s no such thing as “the” answer; nothing exists for us to remove all traces of doubt or fear. All we have are our actions in the individual moments, where and when we need to be as present as possible.
Be in those moments — be aware, be daring, be loving and be prepared to share the stories of those moments after they have come and gone. Be a witness to your moments and those of others. In Wish I Was Here, Braff reminds us how important (and authentic) it is to live life imperfectly. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: A-
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