For someone who has only made two films, Zach Braff, for better or for worse, has a style so distinctive it could almost be called "Braffian." Traits that might distinguish a film as "Braffian" include: a soundtrack laden with emotional indie pop and maybe some Paul Simon and/or Simon & Garfunkel; musings on infinity; and quirky character traits. In his debut film, 2004's Garden State, the love interest was a pathological liar and epileptic who carried a helmet everywhere while another character collected Desert Storm trading cards. A childhood friend of Braff's lead character created "silent velcro." Another character (played by Jim Parsons!) worked at Medieval Times.
In Braff's follow-up Wish I Was Here, out this weekend, he does not shy away from the now-familiar formula. Like in Garden State, the lead character is a struggling actor dealing with a difficult father figure. Like in Garden State, there's a soundtrack filled with wistful songs. Like in Garden State, there's a ton of quirk. Some of it earned, some of it not so earned. Here, with some light spoilers, is a compendium of Braff's offbeat inclusions in his latest.
The Spaceman Fantasies
Throughout the movie, Braff flashes to fantasy sequences involving his character, Aidan, acting out his (and his brother's) childhood fantasies of being a space adventurer. Aidan, decked out in a space suit, is being pursued by a dark and mysterious figure, which—unsurprising spoiler alert—turns out to represent his father. Sci-fi recurs throughout the movie in other ways, as a symbol for Aidan and his brother's unachieved dreams. Aidan's brother Noah (Josh Gad) constructs a spacesuit to win a contest at Comic Con; Aidan helps a fellow struggling actor (Parsons, back again) out on an audition for a sci-fi show.
The spacemen that begin the movie and keep popping up throughout the entirety of it are perhaps the most Braffian element of the film. The use of sci-fi speaks to Braff's love of melancholic musings about finding one's place in an infinite world. When his character goes to a rabbi in Wish I Was Here, the rabbi asks "Do you feel any spiritual connection at all to anything?" He replies: "Infinity."
The Swear Jar
Sure, swear jars aren't that quirky, but the one in Wish I Was Here takes on an extra level quirk when Aidan decides to carry one under his arm while undertaking various adventures with his kids. He could have just taken the cash out of the jar, but no.
In an act of rebellion fueled by her frustration at her parents and, in some sense, the intensity of her Jewish faith, Aidan's daughter Grace (Joey King) decides to shave her head. (Grace cites the practice in some Orthodox traditions in which married women shave their heads for modesty.) When Aidan takes her to buy a wig, he counsels her to choose any wig "as long as it's unique and amazing," while, yes, holding the swear jar under his arm. She spends most of the rest of the movie wearing a fuchsia wig.
For an unexplained reason, Aidan's young son Tucker, played by Pierce Gagnon, is obsessed with a power drill, which he even tries to bring to his school, a Yeshiva. The drill will come in handy later in the film when Aidan—semi-home schooling his kids after his dying father can no longer pay tuition—engages them in home improvement projects.
The Hot Furry
Ashley Greene is underused as a love interest for Aidan's borderline reclusive brother Noah. She plays a furry—who does not like the term furry—whose presence inspires Noah to make a costume for Comic Con to impress her. In Garden State Braff's character watches a home video of Natalie Portman's character skating in a full body alligator costume.
The Welder's Goggles
Grace gives her dying grandfather Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) welder's goggles so he "won't have to squint" when he goes into the light. In one of the movie's final scenes, Grace is seen wearing the goggles while in a chemistry class.