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Braff blows it with 'Wish I Was Here'

* (out of four)

After waiting 10 years to make his follow-up to “Garden State,” Zach Braff probably could have kept his sophomore writing-directing effort, “Wish I Was Here,” free of gags about Sinead O’Connor, Ani DiFranco, Tang and the Amish. Especially when several of these stale jokes come from his character, a struggling actor in L.A. you’d think would be pop culture-savvy enough not to walk into an Aston Martin dealership and awkwardly claim to work with “Sean ‘Puff Daddy Dirty Money’ Combs.”

It’s not just the jokes that seem like they’ve been in a vault for a decade. The partially Kickstarter-funded “Wish I Was Here” demonstrates that Braff has no new moves as a triple threat, or even a single threat. Don’t get me wrong: I loved Braff on “Scrubs,” and though “Garden State” hasn’t aged well, it spoke directly to my 20-something angst. In “Wish I Was Here” (co-written by Braff's brother, Adam) every character sounds like Braff, with Hallmark/sub-Bueller-isms like, “You need to wake up because life is happening all around you.” This is earnestness without poignancy.

In what sometimes feels part Apatow (“This is 40”), part Coen brothers (“A Serious Man”) and all schmaltz, Aidan (Braff) decides to home-school his kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) after his dad (Mandy Patinkin) can no longer fund private day school due to cancer treatment payments. Inevitably, Aidan tells his daughter she won’t need to know geometry, and she becomes the teacher when it’s clear dad doesn’t know anything.

I’m not a cynic. I’m often easily moved and very much inclined to go for stories about struggling families and the fear that life is racing by. Yet in “Wish I Was Here,” Braff merely shoots emotional fish in a barrel without contributing to the conversation. He repeats the same old complaints about sexually unsatisfied dads and dreams that didn’t pan out. Oh, and the acting’s mostly lousy, only partially a result of all the characters speaking the same way. It’s part platitudes (“We move forward; it’s the only direction God gave us”) and part hand-me-down lunges for laughs (Aidan repeatedly says stuff like, “[Bleep] the swear jar”). There's also a running gag about a dog named Kugel who pees everywhere and an atrocious subplot involving Aidan’s strange, nerdy brother (Josh Gad) and a beautiful neighbor (embarrassingly underused Ashley Greene).

I wanted to like “Wish I Was Here.” I wanted it to speak to me the way “Garden State” did, at least the first time. Instead, “Wish I Was Here” (which does make a nice point about unwittingly passing down fears through generations) is desperate, manipulative and self-indulgent. It often seems like it’s missing a laugh track, and there may be no greater sign of Braff stubbornly stuck in the past than his use of Colin Hay’s “Beautiful World,” which featured prominently in “Scrubs.” With a film about assessing life and having the guts to move forward, the filmmaker doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Originally published during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

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