Actor Zach Braff’s new film Wish I Was Here, a follow-up to his 2004 indie hit Garden State, is a sweet and sloppy jumble of fantasy, sentimentality, comedy and soul-searching that feels like a sitcom that never got past the pilot stage. Much more interesting than the film itself are the circumstances of its creation (it was financed largely through a crowd-sourced Kickstarter program) and its milieu (a quasi-observant contemporary Jewish family).
The script, by Braff and his brother Adam, follows a struggling Jewish actor trying to keep his family afloat and wondering about his place in the universe. That prompted an article on the website Hollywood.com to ask: “Is Wish I Was Here the Most Jewish Film Ever Made?” The answer is a resounding No: Any Buzzfeed list would lead with The Golem, The Jazz Singer, Yentl, Shoah, Schindler’s List and A Serious Man.
But Braff’s matter-of-fact treatment of religious practice without belief is refreshing. He plays Aidan, a chronically out-of-work, puppy-eyed actor living in suburban Los Angeles. His wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), does data entry at the local water utility to pay the bills, and his observant father (Mandy Patinkin), a retired professor, pays for their two children to attend a yeshiva school, while subtly disapproving of the “half-Jewish” Sarah. The kids include adolescent Grace (Joey King), who is filled with adolescent devotion, and the more carefree six-year-old Tucker (Pierce Gagnon).
A subplot concerns Aidan’s “genius,” but emotionally stunted, brother, Noah (Josh Gad), who lives in a trailer, dresses in Comic-Con costumes and is estranged from his judgmental dad.
Between the wisecracks and the wispy musical montages, Aidan searches for something like wisdom. His quest isn’t answered by the doddering rabbi who runs the school, giggles at YouTube cat videos and rides about on a Segway. Something better happens when he visits Joshua Tree National Park, where he once had an epiphany. That jibes with the New Age-y advice he gets from a hip young rabbi, that God is what makes you feel spiritual.
In Aidan’s case, spirituality is about a series of space-fantasy sequences in which he imagines himself as a Luke Skywalker-like action hero on another planet. Apart from seeming kind of vapid, the fantasy sequences undermine the movie’s promising premise, especially when it becomes clear Aidan’s religion is much more Jedi than Jewish.