There are some celebrities who inspire as much vitriol as they do affection — like Katherine Heigl, Hollywood’s reigning queen of tone-deaf remarks, or Anne Hathaway, whose detractors have their own name, “Hathahaters.” And then there’s Zach Braff, who thanks to his ventures into filmmaking has been able to generate a next-level brand of hostility that’s something special.
The former Scrubs star made his directorial debut in 2004 with Garden State, an indie hit with a Grammy-winning mix CD of a soundtrack that also managed to set off a string of think pieces on why Braff is the worst. “If Zach Braff is the voice of my generation, can’t someone please crush his larynx?” mused Josh Levin at Slate.
New York magazine’s theater critic Scott Brown began his review of Braff’s playwriting debut All New People by pondering the actor-writer-filmmaker’s perceived crimes: “Braff had the brass to venerate his generation without an ounce of critique, and fetishize himself in the process: He’ll always be, first and foremost, the man who had Natalie Portman, playing an epileptic pixie next door, harvesting his hard-won tears in Dixie Cups.” (Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence was sufficiently miffed by this article to be moved to pen a defense of his former leading man.)
Braff’s second movie, Wish I Was Here, opens this week in select cities with built-in backlash thanks to its being funded, in part, by a $2 million Kickstarter campaign Braff launched after seeing the success of the Veronica Mars movie. The project ultimately netted over $3 million, while inspiring heated debate over whether or not celebs who aren’t hurting for money have a right to crowdfund. Comedian Tim Heidecker was inspired to contribute a particularly scornful proposed scene for the film, enjoining Braff to “please cast me.” Even the title has generated ire for its grammatical composition.
If you disliked Garden State (and obviously there are plenty of people who did not, as it made $35 million worldwide and picked up more of a following on home video), then Wish I Was Here isn’t going to change how you feel about Braff and his artistic outlook. It’s another film about a struggling actor, only Aidan (played by Braff), is 35, and his nonspecific malaise relates to his marriage to Sarah (Kate Hudson), his children Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), his brother Noah (Josh Gad), and their dying father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin, the wise, flawed MVP).
Here’s the point where I should confess that I’m pretty much Zach Braff agnostic. I liked parts of Garden State (mostly the ones with Peter Sarsgaard), and I liked parts of Wish I Was Here (mostly the ones with Mandy Patinkin). Upon seeing Braff, I am not overcome with the urge to punch his not-quite-handsome face. But I do think his apparent hateability is his most compelling quality, because Braff makes movies that are innately small, mild, and filled with very normal problems and solid, not terribly obscure indie rock. Braff’s offenses are mostly minor, but manage to stir some sizable emotions, and that’s a talent.
Among the repeat offenses that crop up again in Wish I Was Here: He has created another beautiful love interest who seems to like him for no reason, in this case Hudson’s Sarah, a woman of apparently infinite patience who’s been supporting the family and weathering her father-in-law’s scorn while her husband has continued to pursue his dream. He continues to lean shamelessly on music to carry long stretches of the film, among the songs Bon Iver’s “Holocene,” Badly Drawn Boy’s “The Shining,” and of course The Shins (they’ll change your life!), with a new song called “So Now What.” He and cinematographer Lawrence Sher stage each shot with an aesthetic fussiness that can make the world look like a Cialis commercial.
But what’s so provoking about Wish I Was Here, like Garden State, is that it takes a very specific scenario and strives to insist that it’s grand and momentous. “When I was a kid, my brother and I used to pretend we were heroes with swords — we were the only ones who could save the day,” Aidan intones over the start of the film. “Maybe we’re just the regular people, the ones who get saved.” These kind of big thesis statements are all over the movie, as is the sentiment, which is a perfectly standard one that Braff unveils like a revelation. Aidan, who’s supposed to be home schooling his children after Gabe’s no longer able to pay for their tuition at the yeshiva he chose, takes them chasing after significance in the backyard, a wig store, and the desert. It’s a movie that restlessly scans the horizon for meaning.
Wish I Was Here is more driven by its heavily underlined themes than it is about its characters and what happens to them, and this, I think, is the secret to what people find so maddening about Zach Braff. The movies themselves may or may not be relatable (despite his perpetual crisis mode, Aidan faces no serious problems other than the tragedy of a parent passing, one that most people have to deal with eventually), but what Braff’s doing is impossible to easily dismiss. Who doesn’t long for epiphanies, try to slice life down to neat anecdotes, fuss over cleverly composed Instagrams, and get misty when the right song comes on at the right moment? And who wants to be reminded of how hollow these elements can actually look when put up on the screen or page?
Braff’s fatal flaw is, I’ll argue, not how he overreaches in making films he too openly hopes will resonate with a generation, it’s that he presumes to do so in a way that’s so unfortunately ordinary. His work is marked by a telegraphed yearning for profundity that’s frustrating and familiar, and while his movies get accused of phoniness, this particular emotion is all too sincere. The tendency to proclaim the universal from the mundane details of a life can be juvenile, but it can also be the stuff of great art. Braff’s clearly striving for the latter, and while he never achieves genius, he fails in ways that may summon a pang of wincing recognition.
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