Some people just want to dislike Zach Braff. The actor once known as the charmingly goofy Golden Globe nominee from “Scrubs” has since become that guy, who’s overly earnest and lends his voice to toilet paper commercials, who uses Kickstarter to partially fund a film and evocative indie music to do the hard work of rousing a moviegoer’s emotions. Never mind that his directorial debut, 2004’s “Garden State,” did well both critically and at the box office. The pitchforks are out, and they’re not easy to put away.
His latest movie, “Wish I Was Here,” isn’t going to quiet the haters. It has all the overly sentimental dialogue, musical crutches and pensive Braff close-ups that annoyed viewers of “Garden State.” And instead of pairing himself up with Natalie Portman, he’s married to a woman played by Kate Hudson.
But here’s the thing: “Wish I Was Here” touches on some timely themes and does so with an artistic vulnerability. You have to hand it to Braff. For a guy who must feel unfairly targeted, he doesn’t shy from being who he is and making, essentially, a grown-up version of “Garden State.”
Braff plays Aidan, a struggling actor who hasn’t worked since a dandruff commercial. Providing for the family largely falls to his wife, Sarah, who hates her job in part because she’s sexually harassed by her officemate. Sarah and Aidan have two kids, the devoutly Jewish pre-teen Grace (Joey King) and her hyperactive younger brother, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), and the family seems to be just barely keeping it all together, amid failed auditions and school drop-offs. But their tenuous balance topples when Aidan’s father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), learns his cancer has metastasized.
The part of the story most likely to resonate with 30- and 40-something viewers is about people who are caring for both needy children and ailing parents. It’s a painful juggling act with no winner. Patinkin is wonderful, as always, and he manages to inject so much humanity into a constantly disappointed curmudgeon. This difficult man is dying, and it feels overwhelmingly tragic. Hudson, who we’re so used to seeing phoning it in as the blonde component of a middling romantic comedy, gives a real and heartfelt performance, too.
Aidan and Sarah always seem to be learning on the job. They may be parents, but they don’t quite know what they’re doing. Aidan curses constantly — and has given significant contributions to the family swear jar — and tries home-schooling the children when his father can no longer pay for their private Jewish school, only to realize he doesn’t really know a lot.
The reality of this family’s situation is much more interesting than the fantasy that Braff, who wrote the script with his brother, shoehorns into the story. Aidan has daydreams about being a superhero, but his suited-up parallel life, in which he’s running from a dark figure, doesn’t really pay off in any significant way.
“Wish I Was Here” has been billed as a comedy, and there are some funny moments, but don’t be fooled: This is a tear-jerker. For all its fairy tale reveries and songs from the Shins, the movie manages to dig up some real emotions. Whether you’re among the 46,520 Kickstarter contributors or an avowed member of the anti-Braff brigade, you may just find yourself trying to stifle a sniffle.
★ ★ ½
R. At area theaters. Contains language and sexual content. 120 minutes.