Thursday, July 17, 2014

Zach Braff's soggy sitcom of a movie

Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is not religious, yet he's sending his daughter and son to an Orthodox Jewish school. Aidan's kids are receiving a Jewish education because Aidan's father (Mandy Patinkin) wants them to understand their heritage. Just as important for the financially pressed Bloom family, Aidan's father picks up the tuition tab.

This, unfortunately, makes Aidan a bit of a hypocrite, a Los Angeles man so fearful of public education, he's willing to put his kids in an environment he doesn't take seriously.

Aidan is the main character in Braff's sometimes irritating Wish I Was Here, a movie about an aspiring actor (Braff) who's struggling economically, but won't consider giving up his dream of becoming a working performer.

Aidan's half-Jewish wife (Kate Hudson) holds the family together financially with a job she hates. Aidan's kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) are ... well ... kids.

The twist that sets a sitcom-like story in motion occurs when Zach's father announces that his cancer has returned, that he's probably terminal and that he's going to spend all his money on what he hopes will be a miracle cure. Money for private school tuition suddenly vanishes.

Aidan's son is delighted to be free of the strictures of religious school. Hs daughter takes her religion seriously; she's also upset about losing touch with friends.

Improbably, Aidan takes on the responsibility for home-schooling his kids, a decision that leads to scenes more painful than funny. Besides, a guy like Aidan has no real reason to believe that he can teach his children math, science or anything else.

And that's the rub: In trying to be clever, the movie often seems to trash anything resembling comic or dramatic truth.

Braff, who financed Wish I Was Here with a much-discussed Kickstarter campaign, seems to be engaged in a hodgepodge of a project: part sitcom and part melodramatic tearjerker.

Just when you think the movie couldn't get worse, Aidan's defiantly geeky brother (Josh Gad) decides to attend a Comic-Con event dressed as a space man. And, yes, that's a definite turn for the worse.

Braff, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Adam, also includes fantasy sequences in which Aidan imagines himself as a kind of comic-book hero, a ploy that provides one more reason to wince.

Hudson brings a sense of reality to her character, and Patinkin makes a convincingly doctrinaire former professor who must, of course, soften his heart before he bids the world adieu.

Braff, who made his directorial debut with 2004's Garden State, attempts to humanize some of the fringe characters: The religious Jews, for example, begin as stereotypical figures, but eventually display a bit of recognizable humanity.

By then, though, the movie has dissolved into a soggy river of sentiment. Braff obviously wants to move us, but Wish I Was Here struck me as a self-absorbed exercise in failed cleverness that doesn't deserve its tears.

In case I haven't been clear enough: I didn't like it.

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