One of the great misconceptions in popular culture over the last 10 years is that Zach Braff wrote and directed ‘The Last Kiss.’ I’ve said that past sentence aloud a few times and its often met with a deluge of “he didn’t?”s. It’s been better lately, at least now that ‘Wish I Was Here’ is set to hit theaters, because the overall narrative is that this is only the second film he’s directed, with the first obviously being ‘Garden State.' The thing is, we all used to love ‘Garden State,’ then it became uncool to like ‘Garden State.’ This has been written about aplenty. But I suspect a lot of that has to do with ‘The Last Kiss.’
Back in 2006, ESPN’s Bill Simmons wrote about seeing ‘The Last Kiss’:
I didn't know anything about it other than it looked like ‘Garden State 2,’ which I wasn't sure was a good thing or a bad thing. Well, it turned out to be a profoundly unhappy movie that will leave you almost in disbelief the entire time that anyone would make a movie so depressing. It's about as uplifting as the sex scene from ‘Requiem For a Dream,’ only if you threw in Starbucks music, some intermittent screaming and Zach Braff looking secretly pissed off the director isn't listening to him.
That director was Tony Goldwyn, who is best known for playing Carl Bruner in ‘Ghost’ and most recently Shailene Woodley’s father in ‘Divergent.’ If you don’t remember, ‘The Last Kiss’ (written by Paul Haggis) is about the contentious relationship between Michael (Braff) and his pregnant girlfriend, Jenna (Jacinda Barrett). Usually in a situation like this where I’m writing about a movie I haven’t seen in a few years, I would re-watch that particular film. In this case, I decided not to because I didn’t feel like hating myself and life in general for the next week. But Simmons’ description is fairly accurate: There’s a lot of yelling and screaming and not much smiling in ‘The Last Kiss.' And I do feel that ‘The Last Kiss’ changed our perceptions of Zach Braff and our perceptions of ‘Garden State.’
‘Garden State’ was a nice surprise from the guy who most people knew on ‘Scrubs’ for saying lines like, “I’ll have an appletini, easy on the tini.” For all of its tropes that it helped spawn for mass consumption – yes, like The Shins – 'Garden State' was still an interesting detour for Braff. But, when ‘The Last Kiss’ hit theaters two years later, it was met with a collective, Oh, this guy takes himself seriously. From the trailer and television commercials, it seemed so much like a ‘Garden State’ type movie, people just assumed this was Braff’s creative follow-up, as opposed to just being a hired gun.
Look, it sort of makes sense that since Braff was on a comedy series he would want to explore darker tones when he took a film role. And, after the phenomenon that was ‘Garden State,’ of course the marketing campaign would subtly try to trick people into thinking ‘The Last Kiss’ was Braff’s anticipated followup to ‘Garden State.’ But this turned into a huge misfire for Braff – which, other than accepting the role so soon after ‘Garden State’ (he had done a voice role in ‘Chicken Little’ the year before), really wasn’t his fault. When ‘The Last Kiss’ tanked, Braff took the heat, even though, creatively, he had very little to do with it. (Some outlets list him with an uncredited writing credit, for what it’s worth.)
Braff’s self-seriousness in ‘The Last Kiss’ made us subconsciously reassess ‘Garden State.’ It made Braff seem pompous. And maybe Braff is pompous; maybe he's not -- I have no idea -- but it was unfair to blame ‘The Last Kiss’ for ever feeling that way. For Braff, it was just the wrong role at the wrong time.
Braff’s next film role was a fairly terrible comedy called ‘The Ex,’ which grossed even less money than ‘The Last Kiss.’ Braff wouldn’t appear in another film for four years, until starring in a small indie film titled ‘The High Cost of Living.’ Then came small roles in the indie film ‘Tar,’ then a small role and voice work in 2013’s ‘Oz the Great and Powerful.’
Now, Braff’s actual followup to ‘Garden State,’ titled ‘Wish I Was Here,’ is being released into theaters this weekend after a premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Braff, like his devoted audience who loved ‘Garden State,’ is older (he turns 40 in April) and no matter what the public’s reaction will be to ‘Wish I Was Here,’ at least, this time, it’s fully deserved.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.