Zach Braff’s Kickstarter-funded second feature polarized critics at Sundance in January and is likely to prompt a wide range of opinions as it opens in theaters. I found it a very mixed bag, veering wildly from strident, sitcom-style humor to genuine pathos. It doesn’t quite gel, but Braff plays a trump card—the death of a parent—for all it’s worth and that tips the scales somewhat.
The movie opens with what seems to be a fantasy sequence. In voiceover, Braff explains that when he was a kid he and his brother saw themselves as heroic spacemen—as he appears right now—but he’s come to realize that perhaps they’re just ordinary people. This visual metaphor recurs throughout the film, but I didn’t connect to it the first time and found it no more resonant, or relevant, at the end. It’s followed by an off-putting establishing scene at the family breakfast table, where a flurry of foul-mouthed dialogue introduces the household “swear jar,” stuffed with cash.
Braff is an unemployed actor whose wife (Kate Hudson) supports the family with a drudge job, while his father pays tuition so the two kids can attend a Yeshiva and connect with their Jewish religion—for which Braff has no particular affinity. When Dad (Mandy Patinkin) reveals that he has cancer and can no longer pay for school, he scolds his son for clinging to a failed career and not taking care of his family. Then we meet Braff’s hermit-like brother (Josh Gad), who lives in a trailer park with an impossibly beautiful view of the Pacific coastline.
The brother character is inconsistent and underwritten, like much of the movie. There are a number of loosely connected plot threads, some of which pay dividends while others peter out. (Even a dog, who figures prominently in the early scenes, disappears at a certain point.)
But when Braff focuses on the challenge of dealing with a dying parent, and how that affects everyone in the family, including his two impressionable children (Pierce Gagnon and Joey King), he hits pay dirt. The best scene in the picture is a quiet, honest conversation between a weakened Patinkin, in his hospital bed, and daughter-in-law Hudson. They reach a kind of détente that (we sense) has been a long time coming.
The weight of this storyline trivializes almost everything that precedes it. The loss of a parent also magically leads to solutions for issues and crises facing Braff, his brother, wife, and children. If only life were that simple.
If you’re a Zach Braff fan you may cut this film more slack than I did. I was moved by the scenes involving the father, and his son’s search for meaning and comfort, but as the film wound to a close I found myself dissatisfied. Braff and his brother Adam, who co-wrote the screenplay, should be applauded for attempting to deal with serious issues, but their seemingly heartfelt effort would have benefited from greater discipline.