The good will, sincerity and insightfulness that marked Zach Braff's 2004 smart directorial debut "Garden State" come up short in his long-awaited follow-up, "Wish I Was Here," a generically broad and vaguely life-affirming film that constantly veers into sitcom territory even as Braff struggles to steer it to a higher level.
Zach plays Aidan, an unemployed L.A. actor and a poster boy for immature, self-centered guys refusing to surrender to the basic hood responsibilities: fatherhood, husbandhood and employmenthood.
When his aging father (Mandy Patinkin) comes down with cancer, Aidan and his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson, emanating cute, one-note supportiveness) pull their kids Grace and Tucker (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) from their expensive yeshiva and put them into home schooling.
Yep. Aidan will be the teacher.
But, can a guy who must constantly pump money into the family swear jar be a great instructor? He can, providing he teaches grandiose New Age-like "life lessons" instead of math and English.
In addition to cancer scares, Peter Pan husbands and Wendy wives, "Wish I Was Here" tosses in sibling rivalry as Aidan's loser brother Noah (Josh Gad) simmers with resentment for Aidan while living like a bum in a rundown beachside trailer. (But it's OK, because he's apparently a genius ... at something.)
Braff and co-writer Adam Braff (his brother) wrench emotions out of a father/son deathbed scene with pliers. They concoct bizarre, ridiculous fantasy segments in which aging adolescent Aidan imagines himself a heroic astronaut on another planet, a blatant marketing ploy for the video game crowd.
By the end, I wish Aidan was there on the dude ranch in "City Slickers," letting Jack Palance set him straight with his lesson on how to grow up.
"Wish I Was Here" is a state of confusion, not a Garden State.
As young Tucker astutely notes early on, "This is boring already!"
"Wish I Was Here" opens today at the River East 21 and Century Centre in Chicago, and the Evanston Century 18. On July 25, it expands to the Lincolnshire Stadium 21 and Renaissance Place in Highland Park. Rated R for language, sexual situations. 120 minutes. ★ ½