07/24/2014 10:49 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2014

The Major Problem With Zach Braff's ‘Wish I Was Here'

Focus Features

There is a beauty to Zach Braff’s “Garden State” that still resonates today. It’s a film within the recent indie canon that captured something many would later attempt: the mid-20s ennui, the disappointing reality of a failed dream job, the desire to escape from home, the lost sense of a home. "Garden State" tackled those moments and handled them well. Anyone in their 20s, or even teens, could relate to the lost soul who Andrew Largeman was, a guy tuned out from every aspect of life in order to escape any and all of its emotional threats. But “Garden State” is about waking up to that mess, throwing yourself head-on into what you don’t understand, and knowing that braving it is better than watching from afar through a thick smog.

One of the best ways to describe Los Angeles -- where Andrew lives before heading back East -- is with its smog. Not just literal smog, either: Los Angeles is a city that's easy to flee to for change. It's a place where people can get lost in dreams of success, glamour and false identity, especially if an identity wasn’t already intact. In “Garden State,” LA is epitomized by this concept of a stifling haze one can flow through, half awake, not wholly sure of what they want, who they are or where they’re going. Braff’s Andrew only becomes aware of his psychological and emotional absence and his repressed pain once he returns home to New Jersey, the source of it all (and, of course, when he stops taking his medication).

“Garden State” ends with Andrew not returning to Los Angeles, the city where he could seamlessly blend in and fall back into his vegetative state. Instead, he stays in New Jersey where nothing really makes sense at the moment, where he has no choice but to face the complications he’s been evading. While “Garden State” ends in a place of uncertainty, it’s so memorable and relatable for demonstrating that you can embrace that feeling. It's a vibe best encapsulated by the lyrics of Frou Frou’s “Let Go”: "It’s all right, because there’s beauty in the breakdown." It may be a simple and obvious message, but it is one that carries weight.

Fast-forward 10 years, and Braff has released “Wish I Was Here,” his second film as a director and follow-up to “Garden State.” The new film takes place in Los Angeles, focusing on Braff’s character, Aidan, an out-of-work actor who hasn’t been himself lately. (If the similarities to Andrew aren’t evident yet, here’s a list of 17 to convince you.) If anything, “Wish I Was Here” plays like a loose theoretical continuation of “Garden State,” as if Andrew Largeman had moved back to LA once he tired of Jersey in an effort to restart his acting career. He got married to Sarah (Kate Hudson), a bland and attractive blonde (a forgettable archetype she fills often) -- no cute, quirky small-town girls here -- had kids, and completely lost himself in the fog of Los Angeles all over again. He’s even more frustrated with his Jewish religion now than before, he still has a bad relationship with his father, and he hasn’t been very present lately (“I haven’t seen you in a while,” his wife says, just in case we somehow missed the meaning of the title). Even more disappointing than his rehashing of the same tropes from his first film is that Braff makes his moral, uplifting messages so painfully obvious that they are almost a bit insulting to the audience’s intelligence. What can be more eye-roll worthy than Aidan sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room looking at an empty pamphlet holder with the label “This pamphlet could save your life.” Oh, no, a guy played by Zach Braff is lost again.

Rather than writing other supporting characters who inspire him and guide his protagonist to self-realization (e.g. Natalie Portman’s Sam and Peter Sarsgaard’s Mark), Braff makes his own Aidan the knowledgeable, moral compass of “Wish I Was Here.” Aidan shows his children his place of solitude on a desert rock (his own version of the “infinite abyss” in “Garden State”), reminds his daughter to be unique (which sounds a little like Sam’s "original" scene) and gives his brother a (very sappy) speech on fishbowls and facing fears. Maybe that’s because Aidan is supposed to represent the older, more learned Andrew, which makes sense. But then why is Aidan so lost if he has all the answers?

There's an unavoidable sense of failure that comes with copying major elements of a good movie only to tell a less daring story. Had Braff made an entirely different film in style and tone from "Garden State," or one that was an actual continuation of his "Garden State" character a decade later, “Wish I Were Here” would, I hope, be much better. But he didn't, and the ending of "Wish I Was Here" reveals that to be true. It's an ending that weakens the film, and in a way, devalues what “Garden State” achieved. (Spoiler Alert) In it, Aidan doesn’t face any major life decisions, as Andrew does, nor have to take any risks. After his father dies, he simply settles. He gives up his acting dreams to become a drama teacher, he and his wife sue the guy who sexually harassed her, his nerdy brother gets the hot girl and everything works out in a pretty perfect manner. If “Garden State” was about embracing the chaos of the moment, then “Wish I Was Here” is about settling. While there's nothing wrong with films that end happily or definitively, there's something undeniably disappointing about a movie that succumbs to complacency.

Embracing the mess may be more of a suitable choice for a younger person as opposed to a married man who must sacrifice his dreams to provide for his family. Maybe Braff doesn't view Los Angeles as so much of an escape anymore but as a place where one can eventually find grounding. Yet still, the Braff from a decade ago told a story that said so much more about life without so much overt trying. "Garden State" served as a reminder that sometimes an ellipsis is better than a period or an exclamation point. Maybe today's Braff is the Andrew who got on that plane back to LA and never looked back. If anything, here's to hoping in another 10 years he'll return to Jersey and make a meaningful movie once again.

"Wish I Was Here" is now playing in select cities.



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