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Film Review of the Week: Wish I Was Here

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The 2004 much-adored, much-maligned indie dramedy Garden State established a devoted cult following for writer-actor-director Zach Braff. But the sudden exaltation of Braff as his generation's scribe, not to mention his debut's qualified success, weren't enough to secure him financing for anything at all these past 10 years. (A surprise, frankly).

Wish I Was Here, Braff's latest, is out this Friday at area theaters. It's his first in a decade, and he got all sorts of shit flung his way for turning to Kickstarter for support. The shit-flinging really ought to begin in earnest now, though; not because Braff has no right to seek backing from supporters — many would argue that he does — but because the film is such a low-aiming mainstream dud.

Braff is Aidan Bloom, a "one-note Woody Allen knockoff" struggling to find acting work while bumbling toward an appropriate understanding of fatherhood in suburban Los Angeles. Aidan's wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) has been so blindly supportive of Aidan's "dream" that she hasn't paused, until now, to acknowledge that her soul-sucking job at the city's water department is in fact sucking her soul. Meantime, Aidan's father (Mandy Patinkin) announces that he's dying of cancer and won't be financing Aidan's kids' tuition at the local Jewish day school any longer. Aidan, thus, begins a ridiculous homeschooling campaign — duct taping his kids to a chair to watch "Reading Rainbow" — while encouraging his RV-dwelling brother Noah (Josh Gad) to make amends with pops. Rest assured: the whole thing is oozing with sentimentality and cliched platitudes about midlife crises and family.

Which is not to say the film's a total train wreck. Braff is a lovable doof, in spite of the occasional ham-handed scene and the nagging suspicion that his stated goals of making films like Woody Allen did, films that "take the social temperature" of people his age, might just be protracted exercises in narcissism. But his two kids (the girl from White House Down and the boy from Looper) fight against the script's early attempts to make them cardboard cutouts, and both Patinkin and Hudson give heartfelt performances with at least three tender moments each.

The problem with the Kickstarter model is that the film isn't aspirational by any stretch. There's nothing all that innovative about the story — which is too multivalent for its own good — or the script itself, Braff, to no one's dismay, signed a distribution contract with Focus Features immediately after the Sundance premiere. Fans should be financing the real experiments.

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