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'Wish I Was Here' review: Maybe not, Zach Braff

Mandy Patinkin, left, stars as Gabe and Zach

Mandy Patinkin, left, stars as Gabe and Zach Braff stars as Aiden in Braff's new comedy, "Wish I Was Here," the follow-up to his indie breakout hit "Garden State." Credit: MCT

As he did in the much-praised "Garden State" (2004), actor Zach Braff ("Scrubs") returns to the director's chair for a bit of trope-juggling with the nonsensically titled "Wish I Was Here." What's it about? Everything and nothing. Seriously: If wishes were horses, one would have walked into the movie and told us what exactly Braff thought was going on.

What the viewer will likely think is that the screenwriters -- Braff and his brother Adam -- have a skewed sense of the dramatic. The nuclear family at the movie's center -- Adrian (Braff), wife Sarah (Kate Hudson), son Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and daughter Grace (Joey King) -- are intended to represent a contemporary state of American economic/spiritual stasis. What they come off as is a clinically depressed sitcom cast. The kids go to a Los Angeles yeshiva only because grandpa Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) insists, and pays; Adrian and Sarah are, at best, reluctant Jews. Adrian is pursuing an acting career that's going less than nowhere, while Sarah works a soul-crushing job at the local water department. It's hard to sympathize much with anyone, but particularly Adrian, because he -- like his trailer-dwelling-genius brother Noah (Josh Gad) -- practices a form of whiny narcissism that all the Cat Power/ Cold Play/Aaron Embry songs in the world can't relieve.

There's an absurdist streak running through "Wish I Was Here" that helps some of the humor but also makes a lot of jokes feel forced. Gabe is dying; the children are home-schooled ("What are we, Amish?"); Adrian takes the kids on a spirit quest that seems to confuse them; Grace cuts off her hair in a gesture of Orthodox solidarity. And Noah finds his soul mate at Comic-Con. There's a lot going on, little of which rings the emotional bell Braff intends. For all its good intentions and easy nature, there's an abrasively blinkered worldview in "Wish I Was Here" that leaves one cold.

PLOT Father/husband/actor finds himself at a crossroads.

RATING R (language and some sexual content)

CAST Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Joey King, Mandy Patinkin


BOTTOM LINE Offbeat, sometimes funny, but emotionally overwrought

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