Ten years ago, Zach Braff established himself as the king of twenty-something anomie with Garden State. His characters' lives were transformed by indie pop, and they teetered on the edge of the infinite abyss they called "life." With a $35 million gross on a $2.5 million budget, it was a killer debut for Braff, who wrote, directed, and starred in the film — a sweet, soppy fairy tale tinged with a kind of post-9/11 hopelessness. Even critics of its era couldn't resist it.
But Garden State has aged. As critics and viewers alike began to bristle at the film's shallow philosophizing and superficial treatment of angst, Garden State attracted an excessive, hyperbolic hatred that led right into the mockery that greeted his sophomore feature, Wish I Was Here. As he explained it, Braff didn't want to give up the "artistic control" required to get his new film made, so he relied on the wallets of fans by launching a Kickstarter crowd-funding project.
The move fed the fires questioning his integrity. It also allowed him to make exactly the film he wanted to make: a Garden State clone.
In Garden State, Braff played Andrew Largeman, a mildly successful actor who returns home for his mother's funeral. As he deals with his difficult father and partakes in epically mundane quests with his quirky friends and enigmatic love interest (Natalie Portman), he confronts the long-festering problems that has led him to years of medicated numbness. Largeman is a man at a crossroads; the death of a parent forces him to examine his life and move on to a better future.
That is, unfortunately, the very same trajectory of his new protagonist, Aidan Bloom, in Wish I Was Here. Bloom, like Braff, is a decade older — but he's experiencing the very same problems that Largeman battled. Bloom has a wife and children, but is still a struggling actor looking for good roles while floating through life. His wife pays the bills and his father pays for private school, until his dad is diagnosed with terminal cancer, forcing Bloom to home-school his kids and face the fruitlessness of his Hollywood dream. He can no longer coast through life. Now he must deal with the consequences.
If the name "Bloom" was changed to "Largeman," Wish I Was Here could easily be passed off as a full-fledged Garden State sequel, with Kate Hudson taking over for Natalie Portman and Mandy Patinkin replacing Ian Holm. And if this were a Garden State sequel, viewers would quickly recognize that Largeman had learned nothing from his adventures exploring the infinite abyss. Wish I Was Here is merely another of Braff's hunts for spiritual guidance — now with children.
Repetitive themes don't need to be a death knell for a filmmaker's career — just ask Woody Allen. But Braff isn't repeating themes. He's repeating the very same experience, in both his plot and his filmmaking. In a piece for Grantland, Zach Dionne compared Wish I Was Here to Garden State based purely on the trailer and noted 17 similarities between them, ranging from the use of The Shins to characters staring into the great beyond. These rip-offs are so obvious that they become self-cannibalization. In conceit and execution, Wish I Was Here is the retelling of Garden State, as if Braff's hero (or Braff himself) lost the message and had to be enlightened/jolted out of stagnancy once again.
"Epiphany is when you realize something you really needed to realize," Bloom explains. But Braff is still working through the same angst, which means his "epiphanies" are fleeting moments of clarity and strength before another bender of weakness. The mere existence of Wish I Was Here proves the emptiness that so many of Garden State's detractors complain about — that his whimsy and so-called philosophy mean nothing.
"What about my dream? Doesn't God care about my pursuit of happiness?" Bloom asks. "I thought you supported my dream," he complains. It begins to sound as if Braff is talking to the audience, railing against the lack of support and shouting his position louder rather than listening and reflecting. More damningly, it becomes a cry of privilege:
"What Zach Braff makes is essentially whitesploitation films, movies aimed directly at the suburban lizard brains of slightly disaffected honkies who will never know true trouble, just the nagging sense that things should be easier for them than they already are. And in the decade since Garden State we've kind of outgrown that. We've started calling this stuff 'White People Problems' and 'First World Problems,' and we've realized it's pretty f*cking gauche to go on and on about them." [Badass Digest]
Braff's unfettered creative freedom turned Wish I Was Here into an exercise in self-indulgence. It's particularly galling for a film funded by the audience, but it stings even more for the film it might have been. Braff isn't talentless; beyond the empty epiphanies and grandiose declarations that drag his movie down, he excels at casual banter and wry humor. Braff went to Kickstarter so that he could make a film with no compromises — but compromise is exactly what he needed. A collaborator who could rein in his flaws and accentuate his day-in-the-life casualness could pull Braff out of his solipsism and into a new mode of storytelling about real life.
If you slice away the moments that copy Garden State most clearly, Wish I Was Here actually has a heart people can relate to: the Bloom family. In a world where men increasingly stay at home with their kids, and many families struggle with money, happiness, and future stability, you can imagine a version of this film in which Braff says something genuine and resonant, defying his critics and earning some new fans.
There's still time for Braff to craft a film that says something truly special — but he needs to do it soon. "Try to remember how fast it goes," warns Wish I Was Here. It's one of many lessons Braff needs to listen to, and not just declare. Life goes too fast for anyone to explore the same story over and over.