Zach Braff’s “Wish I Was Here” is a sweet and jokey feature film that is so at home in the punchline rhythms of TV sitcoms that you may think to yourself, “When’s his best friend/former ‘Scrubs’ co-star Donald Faison showing up?”
And then he does.
It probably took a little work to invent a character and place for Faison in this Jewish life/end-of-life dramedy. But it was a safe bet that Braff, who co-wrote and directed his second feature (after 2004’s “Garden State”) and financed it with the help of legions of fans through Kickstarter, would make that “Scrubs” reunion work.
“Safe bet” is a good way to view this genial, sensitive story of Aidan, a father and failed actor (Braff) whose wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), supports the family – something his own father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), never lets him forget. Much of what happens here is just R-rated versions of the sorts of life moments/decisions that distinguished “Scrubs.”
Gabe’s cancer comes back, and 30-something Aidan and his family, including his washout brother (Josh Gad), have to wrestle with being faithless Angelenos with no serious grasp of “Why we’re here” or “What’s it all about?”
Aidan’s kids are in yeshiva school, where young teen Gracie (Joey King of “White House Down” and TV’s “Fargo,” a marvel) has taken up the faith of her fathers with a vengeance. Her Hebrew is impressive, her devotion extends to her monochromatic wardrobe. Younger brother Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) sleeps through choir, totes a cordless power drill in his backpack and isn’t all that bummed when the family suddenly is cut off from the funds that make their expensive, judgmental all-Jewish school too expensive.
Aidan married a shiksa, so neither he nor Sarah are immersed in Judaism. Their solution, since Aidan’s last acting job was in a dandruff commercial, is that he’ll home-school the kids. He thinks all he’ll need is an elbow-patch corduroy jacket for that.
Meanwhile, tough-love Gabe is slipping this mortal coil. Aidan can’t talk brother Noah into even visiting the old man he hasn’t seen in a year, and at every corner, the disapproving rabbis of the yeshiva (wizened character actor Alan Rich among them) tut-tut Aidan’s career and the reversal of roles in their household, where Sarah suffers through a sexist workplace just to keep their cluttered house in their hands.
The parameters of “Wish I Was Here” fit pretty neatly within what could have just been a “Scrubs” reunion – similar performances, same tone, similar jokes, similar aphorisms.
“An epiphany is when you realize something you really needed to realize.”
“The things we left unsaid stay with us forever.”
The banter is snappy and quick, as when Gracie’s non-Jewish neighborhood crush wonders why she had to drop out of private school.
“But I thought the Jews ran Hollywood?”
“Me too! Maybe we’re in the wrong tribe.”
Like the year’s other big fan-funded feature film, “Veronica Mars,” “Wish I Was Here” takes the eager-to-please route, from its tone to its fan-friendly pandering. Faison of “Scrubs” plays a sports car salesman that Aidan and the kids hassle, and there’s an inane Aidan-as-Skywalker-ish-space-hero fantasy sequence that returns, time and again. We visit Joshua Tree for our “epiphany” and Comic-Con, where the nerdy brother finds himself, and where the soundtrack makes this the second movie of the summer to mockingly use Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child.”
If you liked “Scrubs,” and I did, for a few seasons, anyway, you’ll be happy Braff got to make his movie and happy that you got to see it. Braff and Hudson play an interesting story arc, and Hudson gives her all in the best role she’s had in this millennium. But within minutes of the closing credits, you’ll wish Braff had somewhere fresh to go with all those millions his fans donated to him to direct his first feature in a decade.