Zach Braff is probably most widely known for his starring role in the NBC sit-com Scrubs as John “J.D.” Dorian, a whimsical, young doctor who, despite being confronted with the finality of death at every turn, pursues life as though it might never end. He’s also the lead actor and director of 2004’s independent drama Garden State, a film that dealt with death and the iniquities of life from the perspective of an informed optimist, aware of all of life’s hardships while simultaneously remaining determined to live well enough despite the fact. More recently, however, his is a name that has become synonymous with intellectual immaturity and creative redundancy. Last summer’s Kickstarter-funded Wish I Was Here was a treacle retread of the same comedic waters as Scrubs that failed to deliver the same dramatic punch as his feature film debut, with Braff physically manifesting middle age but emotionally persisting his inhabited role of the twenty-something daydreamer, sober consciousness still far beyond his maturity grade.
Today, April 6, 2015, Braff is officially middle-aged, as he has reached the ripe old age of forty, biologically surpassing his infamous role on Scrubs regardless of where his own emotional maturity has gotten him. It would be nice to think that “J.D.” might have progressed more professionally at this point, but while Braff’s playwriting and stage acting hint at a talent ready to take on the roles of a serious performer, last summer’s Wish I Was Here seems to hint at an actor unwilling to let go of the early roles that made him internationally well known. There’s a lot that can be said about Zach Braff on his birthday, but not all of it is commendable. His life’s work to date is indicative of an American actor wanting in talent but not public acclaim, notoriety, remarkably or not, already achieved.
Seemingly, last summer’s Wish I Was Here was the nail in the coffin in terms of Braff’s career as a Hollywood performer, his voice perhaps better suited to the television screen. In last summer’s “J.D.”-supplement, Braff appeared to be struggling to say anything more befitting his current station on the scale of life, the rhetorical content of the film’s script more appropriate to Garden State’s irreverence and youthful vitality. In Wish I Was Here, Braff is, for all intents and purposes, playing the same character established in Garden State, only now he is a thirty something father of two, inexplicably married to Kate Hudson, and dealing with the turmoil and fallout of his father dying from cancer, who is also dissimilarly portrayed by Mandy Patinkin. Patinkin is another actor whose talent is so far outside the realm of the film’s intelligence, or lack thereof, that his comparatively stellar performance serves to bring the viewer out of Braff’s insipid fantasy.
Unlike Garden State, Wish I Was Here is dishonest in its evocation of ennui, the precociousness of youth once age appropriate dissonantly ill applied to a subsequent story about fatherhood. Braff’s Aidan Bloom is preposterously situated within a role to which he appears characteristically ill suited, Aidan as much of a father figure as the forever young John Dorian. Whereas in Scrubs, Braff’s immaturity and childishness was what made up the charm of the show. The actor’s continuing sophomoric good nature becomes negligent when applied to a father figure. Wish I Was Here poses the question of where Braff thinks he is going, his pretensions towards parenthood wishfully applied and wistfully imagined by Hollywood’s newest preeminent man child.
Which is not to say that Scrubs isn’t still great or that Garden State isn’t still a seminal touchstone within the coming-of-age dramatic sub-genre. In Scrubs, Braff made it okay for mid to late twenty-somethings to be vocationally aimless, spiritual wanderers. In Braff, a generational dissatisfaction with the precedent for life fulfillment set by one’s parents quickly becomes superseded by the cultural rise of agnosticism and atheism in the twenty-first century, moral and political strictures accordingly loosening and evolving with the dawn of an increasingly liberal social climate. While much of Braff’s work as a screen actor has of late become culturally redundant to the point of his becoming individually irrelevant, his imprint on the ethos of young adulthood in the twenty-first century is remarkably still relevant, his personal idiosyncratic ennui ours, and ours his.
As far as Braff’s status as a bankable Hollywood star is concerned, fans will likely be disappointed if they’re expecting a return to the form set by Scrubs and Garden State. The critical and financial failure of Wish I Was Here serves as insurance against any more personal projects from the now forty year old actor, at least for the foreseeable future. Even though his dramatic work is lacking lately, his comedic chops are still impeccably intact. Wish I Was Here possesses all of the satire and verve of Braff’s very best episodes on Scrubs and is decidedly more self-possessed than the ill conceived show’s final, sycophantically self-parodic season. Braff shows no sign of stopping creatively, whether it be on the screen or the stage. At the very least, he’s original which is in keeping with Braff’s career as a non-conformist performer of the young guard of American actors of the early 2000s.
Without further ado, happy fortieth birthday, Zach Braff. Thank you for giving all of us young people the know how and self-assurance to be precociously inquisitive of previous generations. Your name is the decided spitting image and icon of millennial ennui, never entirely satisfied, but forever searching for spiritual fulfillment, wherever it may come from and however it may take shape. Now back to watching back seasons of Scrubs and re-watching Garden State for the umpteenth time.