My intention was to review Zach Braff’s new film without mentioning the controversy he stirred up in funding it via Kickstarter. My view was that what mattered was the movie itself, and the kerfluffle over how it was all paid for was beside the point. But it turns out that it is the point. “Scrubs” star Braff says that despite the success of the first film he wrote, directed, and starred in, Garden State, not one studio was willing to give him the money for this follow-up. So, he went to crowd-funding as a way to give him artistic freedom. To those who said that crowd-funding should not be used by wealthy celebrities, he correctly pointed out that no one who objected had to send any money. Many people did want to support the project. He asked for $2 million. He raised $3,105,473 from 46,520 people.
That’s a good thing for making sure he got to realize his very individual artistic vision. I’m just not sure whether we would not have been better off with a studio persuading him to make this film, as the suits in Hollywood like to say, “more relatable.” The script, written by Braff and his brother, is kind of a mess. Now, life is kind of a mess, too, and movies don’t all have to be rigidly linear or consistent in tone. But this one does not come across as intentionally messy to reflect the rich tapestry of life. It comes across as undercooked and self-indulgent. Maybe I should say Kickstarter-enabled.
In “Garden State,” Braff played a struggling young actor named Andrew Largeman who returns to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral, decides to go off of his mood-numbing meds originally prescribed by his disapproving, remote father, meets the warm and loving and completely adorable Natalie Portman, and learns to begin to feel his feelings.
While not formally a sequel, in this film Braff plays a struggling less-young actor named Aiden Bloom married to a warm, loving, and completely adorable Sarah (Kate Hudson), and struggling with his remote, disapproving father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin).
Aiden and his father have agreed that if Gabe will pay the grandchildren’s private school tuition, he can pick the school. So, even though Aiden is not an observant Jew, his children go to an Orthodox yeshiva school. He is frustrated that his daughter Grace (Joey King) has become very devout. And he is even more frustrated when Gabe tells him that he will not be able to pay the tuition any longer because he needs the money for some experimental cancer treatment. “So much bad news all at once,” Aiden says, learning that his children will have to leave school and his father may be dying in the same moment.
Aiden unsuccessfully tries to persuade the school’s principal, an aged rabbi, to give the children a scholarship. Because Aiden is not trying to get a job to support his family, and because they would have to take money from other families who are in need, the rabbi says no, firmly but not unkindly. Aiden haplessly starts to homeschool his children as Sarah struggles with an obnoxious co-worker who insists on making highly sexual and completely inappropriate comments. She gets no help from her boss, who tells her to lighten up.
Aiden also has a brother, Noah (Josh Gad), a brilliant near-recluse who lives in a trailer. He has genius-level analytic skills but toddler-level interpersonal skills.
There are moments in this film that are pure, inspired, and clearly the work of an exceptional filmmaker. Too many of the best of them recall even better versions of themselves in “Garden State.” And too many other moments are spoiled by an unwillingness to trust the audience. The portrayal of Judaism borders on the grotesque (rebbe on a Segway — funny; rebbe on a Segway he can’t maneuver — not). Braff as writer and director makes the mistake we see too often: Jewish actors and filmmakers who portray Jews feel that they have to ACT Jewish so they go painfully over the top. The way Aiden and Sarah handle their daughter’s wish to be more religious is insensitive and unrealistic. The way she chooses to demonstrate her faith is inappropriate for a young girl and makes no sense. Until a moment late in the film when a quiet conversation with a sympathetic young rabbi, the portrayal of the Jewish community is unremittingly negative. And Aiden is not as endearing as his director/portrayer apparently think.
It is a second quiet conversation that makes up for a lot of the missteps along the way. Kate Hudson speaks to a man in a hospital bed, and it is touching and moving. There are some striking images and some choice performances, especially Jim Parsons (who had a similar role in “Garden State,” also in a wild get-up) as another aspiring actor. And, as with “Garden State,” the music on the soundtrack is beautifully curated.
If Braff decides to go back to Kickstarter for #3, I might sign up. Until then, I’ll think of this as a transitional film and hope that Braff will learn from it that sometimes when people say no it’s for a good reason.
Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, some crude, some used by children, explicit sexual references and situations, pornography and workplace sexual harassment, and drinking.
Family discussion: How did Noah and Aiden respond differently to Gabe’s parenting? Was Sarah right to support Aiden?
If you like this, try: “Garden State” and “Scrubs”