Wishing I Was Watching More Zach Braff Movies

I don’t know when people decided to apologize for liking Garden State, but I really wish I was around when this shift took place.  I very distinctly recall when the movie came out ten years ago and all of us fawned all over it, myself included.  I found my adoration justified. This movie channeled what I felt as a twentysomething perfectly. That desire to feel less like you were ambling through everything and that your life was headed in some sort of direction and had some sort of purpose.

I will not apologize for liking the quirky moments of the movie like silent Velcro, the African exchange student, and the tryst with the guy from Medieval Times. I won’t apologize for the soundtrack either, because you can claim the movie has aged, but this soundtrack is still sheer perfection. And I certainly won’t apologize for the fact that it replicates an experience common among white middle class Gen-X/Millenials, because white middle class Gen-X/Millenials need movies too.

I’m also not going to apologize for the fact that I rather enjoyed Braff’s new film, Wish I Was Here, for many of the same reasons. In reading the reviews, it seems like many people are raking Braff over the coals for treading familiar territory, but I don’t really see anything wrong with that. Woody Allen basically remade one-third of Crimes and Misdemeanors as Match Point. Richard Linklater gets immense praise for the Before Sunrise trilogy, which tracks the same characters from the night they met in Paris to present day. You could have told me the lead character in Wish I Was Here was Andrew Largeman and, other than wondering what happened to Natalie Portman, that would have been fine by me.

Perhaps it is just an instance of good timing, but Wish I Was Here very much captures the way I feel at 30, just like Garden State captured the way I felt at 20. I am currently changing a lot of things in my life and asking a lot of questions about what I want out of my future. This whole movie asks us to think about what we should be doing with our lives. Braff’s character confronts the many different paths his life could take.  As his ailing father fails to hide his disappointment in his son, Braff’s character Aidan dwells on how he failed to please his father. Seeking council from a rabbi, Aidan is reminded he needs to be a good father, perhaps needing to take a path to please his children. His wife, played exceptionally well by Kate Hudson, points out the sacrifices she made for him and suggests she deserves some sacrifices in return.

However, Aidan clings on to the idea that he deserves to pursue his own dream, which is an acting career. Many reviews suggest this guy’s need to be less selfish and grow up is too simplistic, a cry for pity that isn’t deserved.  Honestly though, while this may be a first world problem or the type of thing where people just want to say “man up” and move on, I am not ashamed to admit this seems like worthwhile territory to explore.

After years of my generation and younger being raised to believe they are special, what happens when the inevitable truth that we are not special sinks in?  I know this sounds petty when I put words to cyber paper, but as silly as it sounds, there is a certain amount of depression that sets in when you realize your life isn’t going to be what you envisioned.  In this movie, Aidan isn’t just grieving for his father, he is grieving for that time in his life which was still so full of possibility, where it still seemed reasonable to believe his big dreams would come true.

And though it may be twee and though it may be a movie all about first world problems, Braff directs the film so earnestly that I can’t help but buy in and follow along.  Braff isn’t afraid of feeling and admitting he is sad and that his brain is reeling from issues that may not seem as important to other people as they feel to him. This is a flaw in many critics’ eyes, but to me, it is Braff’s greatest strength. Culture these days seems to be more than willing to be unironically and openly happy and optimistic, but there still seems to be much resistance to expressing feelings like sadness or regret without some sort of edge or irony.  All of the praised dramas have to be dire with high stakes. There has to be dead girls or meth heads or homeless people. Being sad about the loss of a parent and questioning what direction your life is headed simply aren’t serious enough. To dwell in these questions gets written off as self-indulgent.

But, y’all, let’s be real for a minute—in this day and age, people are selfish.  They do worry about these seemingly petty things, and they worry about them a lot, at least I do. For my generation, nobody seems to be able to channel that angst and present it in a way that can be both entertaining and cathartic the way Braff does. I often question some of this criticism about his self-pity, because when I watch both Garden State and Wish I Was Here, I see a protagonist who is depicted as a bit of a screw up.  Braff never presents himself as a person to feel sorry for and that is it. Aidan is clearly a little immature, that is intentional.  It is a magnified version of a problem plenty of people my age have, presented in a way where we can both wallow in it a little, but laugh at ourselves and keep us from taking it too, too seriously.

So, I will continue to eagerly turn over my money to see his movies or fund them on Kickstarter or do whatever I can do to produce more dramas that spend more time questioning expectations between parents and children and less time brutalizing women or murdering your enemies or whatever the hell else always seems to happen on these “prestige” TV shows.

You can call him self-absorbed or whiny or filled with self-pity, but as I see it, Braff is one of the few filmmakers out there putting out material that bears an iota of resemblance to a life I lead. I don’t need my entertainment to mirror my life all the time, but having a guy like him out there producing movies that helps me reflect on my own life is simply something I am never going to apologize for.  


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