In spite of the Kickstarter hoopla and general hype surrounding Zach Braff’s return to feature filmmaking following a decade-long absence, Wish I Was Here is just about the movie you’d expect. It’s not technically a sequel to Garden State, but this is Braff exploring the same ideas in nearly-identical fashion.
Imagine Braff’s Andrew Largeman ten years later but stuck-in-the-mud as ever and there’s Aidan Bloom, his protagonist here. Throw in the trademark Braff blend of fast, broad humor and unabashed sentimentality, plus a soundtrack packed with indie rock and lots of slow motion, and you can pretty much fill in the blanks.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with returning to a familiar template, especially when it worked so well the first time around. There are considerable pleasures to be had in experiencing this story centered on a crisis-ridden moment in Largeman’s Bloom’s thirties, where a whole lot of negative news converges at once. It’s simply to say that when it comes to tone, structure and dialogue-construction, the picture seems awfully familiar.
Aidan is a father of two, married to Sarah (Kate Hudson) and struggling to sustain the dying embers of his acting dream. He’s forced to start home schooling the children (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) when his dad’s (Mandy Patinkin) cancer returns and the money that grandpa had been spending on the kids’ education at a Jewish day school must instead go toward treatment.
At its best, the movie offers a sincere portrait of a family coping with the realities of an imminent loss. It’s an earnest look at the burdens of unfulfilled expectations and the ways a lifetime of frustrations and disappointments are amplified by the looming specter of death. Braff and Patinkin share an affecting father-son bond that’s both heartfelt and tinged with biting sarcasm – conveyed in the sentiments of an academic dad who senses that time is running out to convince his son that acting is just an adolescent fantasy.
The director/star, who co-wrote the script with his brother Adam, showcases his considerable comic chops both in front of and behind the camera. The family chaos is given the sort of sharp, manic bent Scrubs fans will recognize, with fast-paced dialogue and a sort of anarchic spirit that results in moments such as a home lesson gone wrong that ends with the kids duct taped to a chair. It’d be great to see what Braff the feature filmmaker could do with a straight-on comedy that didn’t feel the need to be about big ideas and constantly remind you of them.
Braff the sentimentalist takes over for good at about the midway point here, and the rest of the picture aims straight for the tear ducts. The naturalistic strains of the early scenes give way to a series of pop-philosophical bromides that largely convey the sort of sentiments you’d expect to find in a low-rent self-help book. It’s a repetitive crutch on Braff’s part, spelling out the movie’s themes in conversation.
The low point is probably the scene where Sarah complains to her boss about a co-worker who is harassing her in a particularly crude fashion and his response is (I’m paraphrasing), “Yes, that’s bad, but you should say, ‘Hakkunah Matata,’ because you have a job.”
The practice also leads to too many scenes that simply don’t ring true. There’s an entire subplot involving Aidan’s open antagonism toward his kids’ religious education that plays false for a host of reasons: this extraordinarily secular couple would never send their kids to an Orthodox yeshiva; a rabbi offers advice that a real Orthodox rabbi would never offer; and the absurdist exploration of faith and spirituality via that age-old Book of Job/A Serious Man cry of anguish at God’s mysterious ways is fundamentally too complex of an idea for the filmmaker’s populist style.
Braff has a distinct directorial voice and a point-of-view; he makes character-driven movies about real people experiencing recognizable dilemmas, and that’s admirable for any A-list filmmaking talent in 2014. The people in his films are exceedingly ordinary and unaccomplished, precisely the sort that are too often neglected in cinema, and he should be commended for celebrating their ordinariness. Wish I Was Here is simply devoured by his most cloying tendencies and beset by the feeling that it represents an attempt to re-capture magic that left the bottle when Garden State premiered at Sundance in 2004.
The Upside: Zach Braff has a directorial voice and the movie explores some relatable terrain with moments of genuine humor and emotion.
The Downside: The movie is way too similar to Garden State and bogged down by too many convolutions and a tendency to convey its ideas awkwardly through the dialogue.
On the Side: Braff directed seven episodes of Scrubs. It’d be interesting to see if he could bring that show’s sensibility to the big screen in a future project.