My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.
Over the last decade, Zach Braff’s reputation has experienced a dramatic downturn. Ten years ago, Braff was the well-liked and charming star of the perennially imperiled television comedy Scrubs, a guest star on Arrested Development, and the writer, director, and star of the well-received film Garden State. Although Braff’s directorial debut attracted its share of detractors at the time of its release, it was also passionately embraced by those that saw it as a generational touchstone of sorts, a Gen-X New Jersey version of The Graduate.
Today, Scrubs is half-remembered as a show that started off strong before quickly devolving into glib, gimmicky self-parody. Garden State is generally regarded as a tremblingly earnest embarrassment from a walking punchline synonymous with a dour, sadly deathless strain of straight white male pretension. Googling Zach Braff leads to articles with titles like “Why I Hate Zach Braff,” “Why People Hate Zach Braff,” “If You Mock Garden State, You Will Hurt Zach Braff’s Fragile Heart,” “Zach Braff’s Irritating Sense Of Entitlement,” “Why I Walked Out Halfway Through The New Zach Braff Movie,” and more puzzlingly, “Zach Braff Face Cream Cheap Best Skin Care Products.”
I have not read any of these articles because I wouldn’t want them to prejudice my opinion of Braff’s follow-up, but I think they capture the general tenor of online discourse about Braff at the moment. I was never a fan of Garden State, but I admit that my opinion of Braff has been colored by Amelie Gillette’s adroit and clever mockery of him in these here pages, particularly her description of him as possessing a “face made out of feelings.” Ever since, I have been unable to gaze upon Braff’s hangdog visage and not have those words pop into my mind.
There is a self-perpetuating nature to the nastiness of these articles. “If You Mock Garden State, You Will Hurt Zach Braff’s Fragile Heart,” for example, refers to Braff’s recent ill-advised tweets (that have since been deleted) attacking a Vice article entitled “It’s The Ten-Year Anniversary Of Realizing ‘Garden State’ Sucked.” Honestly, criticizing Vice for being unnecessarily mean is about as useful as attacking the sun for rising each morning with groaning predictability and just as likely to yield results.
This onslaught of online snark prompted Braff to tweet at Vice repeatedly with the following bursts of Eeyore-like self-pity, condescension, and weird passive-aggression, such as, “I really enjoy your reporting. You are better than this very cruel article about my film.” He then tweeted separately to the author of the article, Dan Ozzi, “That was a tremendously mean article you wrote about my film. I wish you all the best with all of your future endeavors.” as well as “I’ll bet you are a nice guy. Why write something so cruel?! You’re a writer!!!! It was my first film!!! For what?! Click?!?!”
This weird tantrum of a response, where Braff can’t stop simultaneously complimenting people (I bet you’re a nice guy! We’re both writers! You guys do great journalism! I wish you the best in all of your future endeavors!) and begging them to stop being such meanies, in turn prompted a mocking article in Jezebel, feeding the public perception of Braff as a thin-skinned artiste who cannot take criticism, and providing fuel for future “Zach Braff is the worst, as an artist and person” think-pieces.
There’s nevertheless something poignant about Braff’s response to the Vice article, misguided and counter-productive as it might have been. Braff is calling for a more polite and kind online world, one where people think long and hard about the feelings of the artists they’re writing about, and treat movies with sensitivity and empathy rather than snark and derision. But Zach Braff asking the online world to stop being mean toward Garden State now is like Bill Clinton calling a press conference next week to call for a moratorium on Monica Lewinsky jokes: It’s a little too late for that, and it’s touching that Braff somehow imagines that it isn’t. It’s hard to imagine what a positive response to Braff’s tweets might be. Did he expect Vice to formally apologize for saying Garden State sucks and run a multi-page retraction explaining that writer who wrote the piece was suffering from a terrible case of the hates, and was just jealous of Braff’s talent and now realizes that it’s an achingly bittersweet coming-of-age masterpiece?
All those tweets were going to do was further feed an online Zach Braff hate machine that’s doing just fine on its own. It’s not as if Braff went from being a well-liked young actor and filmmaker to a widely mocked joke of a man by virtue of making lots of bad movies. On the contrary, Braff has been aggressively non-prolific since Scrubs went off the air in 2010. He appeared in a couple of obscure, low-budget films (The High Cost Of Living, Tar) and voiced a winged monkey in Oz The Great And Powerful. Otherwise all of his energy seemed focused on finally making that long-awaited, long-dreaded follow-up to Garden State. Just in case there weren’t enough reasons to want to punch Braff right in that face made out of feelings, the title of the follow-up was Wish I Was Here.
Braff did not trust the parasitic, sausage-fingered money men of Hollywood with his beautiful brainchild. So he appealed to his devoted fan base, and asked them to help fund the movie through popular crowd-sourcing powerhouse Kickstarter. Depending on your perspective, this was either a heroic attempt to maintain complete creative control over a deeply personal vision, or an insufferable act by a whiny little baby-man who would rather beg for money from the general public than have to compromise his precious art.
People are innately skeptical of celebrity Kickstarter campaigns because there is a widespread belief, not unfounded, that if rich, famous people want to get a project made they should use their wealth and fame to get that project realized and not ask for assistance from people who are likely nowhere near as famous or wealthy. Braff’s Kickstarter campaign raised over a million dollars more than its $2 million goal, but the campaign also made Braff a target of even more ridicule, resulting as it did in another movie like Garden State.
Though technically not a sequel, Wish I Was Here, which was released to mixed to negative reviews and failed to make back even its modest budget, once again casts Braff as an actor in the midst of an existential crisis that forces him to confront the ghosts of his past, a scary present, and an uncertain future. In Wish I Was Here, Braff’s Aidan Bloom is staring down a pair of agonizing deaths, one literal, the other symbolic. Bloom, husband to a supportive but frustrated wife played by Kate Hudson and father of two children (a gratingly precocious boy and a teenaged girl who has rebelled against her secular parents by embracing the values of her Orthodox Jewish private school), is facing the death of his gloomy and disapproving father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), who financially supports Aidan’s family while making no secret of how little respect he has for his son’s acting dreams.
To the Orthodox Jewish community, Aidan is less a dreamer pursuing a noble dream against long odds than a silly little clown indulging a child-like fantasy that forces his wife to be the breadwinner of the family in violent defiance of God’s wishes (and God’s inveterate misogyny). This leads to the second death Aidan is facing: the death of his dreams of supporting his family by being a full-time actor. It’s hard not to see the meta-commentary in Braff’s character continuously being told that he should abandon his dreams and accept the compromises of adulthood and get a real job, the same way that Braff as a filmmaker working in the studio system would be forced to accept the compromises that are both an inveterate part of being a grown-up and also the creative process. So it feels like Braff took to Kickstarter to make a film that lovingly preserved all of his mistakes and wrong choices, that retained every woefully unnecessary big speech, every subplot screaming for the cutting-room floor, and every actor’s huge moment that feeds their ego but adds nothing to the film.
Wish I Was Here is a pure reflection of Braff’s desire to give actors meaty, substantive roles, scenes, and dialogue. Yet with the exception of Braff, literally every major character and subplot could be completely removed without harming the film. That dying patriarch thread that gives the film its ostensible gravity? The whole section of the film involving Noah, Aidan’s brother, an eccentric science-fiction-obsessed genius played by Josh Gad? Wish I Was Here could just as easily have been a comedy-drama about a single father, instead of one where Hudson has groaningly unnecessary subplots of her own, including being sexually harassed by a sleazy cartoon of a leering cad straight out of a 1970s sitcom. Yet all of these characters and subplots remain in the film and demand to be serviced constantly by a screenplay that begins as the cinematic equivalent of an earnest first novel. It’s filled with heavy-handed symbolism and contemplation of life’s big issues and an open-mic night stand-up comedy set, complete with glib, dated jokes about the similarities between the names Al Roker and Al Qaeda, Sting’s lute-playing, and Jane Fonda.
The dramatic shifts in tone should be more jarring than they actually are. Early in the movie, Aidan’s dad confides that he’s dying and will no longer be able to pay for Aidan’s children’s private-school tuition, and also that Aidan must take care of his misbehaving dog. The scene could have ended with a reaction shot of the dog sassily covering its eyes with its paws in mock-protest, or Aidan staring soulfully into the distance as he contemplates mortality. Neither would feel out of place. When the film shifts from Noah having sex with a hot furry to Noah soberly contemplating his father’s mortality and his own shortcomings as an uncle, son, and brother in a matter of seconds, the whiplash nature of the change in tone should be unintentionally hilarious. The fact that it isn’t speaks to the film’s strange in-between quality.
Braff has staked everything on a personal dream project that is merely okay. It groans under the weight of its pretensions, but isn’t anywhere near the self-aggrandizing train wreck it has the potential to be. There are some lovely shots, nice cinematography, and valuable moments, but the whole thing feels achingly unnecessary and devoid of substance. Wish I Was Here sometimes recalls A Serious Man in its very Jewish exploration of a middle-aged man searching for answers and not finding them in Orthodox Judaism. But the Braff brothers (Zach wrote this with his brother Adam) are not the Coen brothers, so this feels more like A Not So Serious Man.
One of the turning points in Braff’s descent from well-liked young artist in a hurry to silly caricature of a self-important artist was the instantly iconic, then widely mocked scene in Garden State where Natalie Portman’s character sticks a pair of headphones on Braff’s sad sack and tells him, “You gotta hear this one song—it’ll change your life, I swear,” before playing The Shins’ “New Slang.” Such outsize passion and urgency about something like a pop song is easy to mock, but that brazen sincerity helped make Garden State as loved as it is hated. I respect Braff’s desire to tell the story of Wish I Was Here his way, but the movie is defined by a furious lack of urgency and significance, no matter how desperately it strains for meaning. To paraphrase Portman’s words, you don’t gotta see Wish I Was Here. It’ll have absolutely no impact on your life, I swear.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure