‘Wish I Was Here’ Review
If Zach Braff had made his Sundance premiere ‘Wish I Was Here’ immediately after 2004’s ‘Garden State,’ the filmmaker’s latest would probably have scanned as a step forward for the multi-hyphenate, with a richer storyline and a better sense of style. But a decade on, the film doesn’t even remotely read as a progression for its creator, no matter how appropriate a double feature it would make with its predecessor. It may have been 10 years since Braff made a film of his own (for ‘Wish I Was Here,’ he serves as star, co-writer, director, and producer), but his filmmaking has not emotionally matured in the slightest in the interim, and ‘Wish I Was Here’ is tangible and cinematic proof of that.
Braff’s directorial debut, ‘Garden State,’ bowed at the festival a decade ago, and the newly-minted filmmaker seemed to have the world on a string after wowing audiences at Sundance 2004. The film was a nominee for the fest’s Grand Jury Prize, and Braff went on to rack up the accolades (including a Grammy!), but ‘Wish I Was Here’ is the first film he’s made since those heady days in the early aughts. Braff was one to watch after Sundance 2004, but that buzz has certainly worn off in the intervening years (and, no, his new film’s Kickstarter campaign and its inevitable fallout hasn’t necessarily endeared Braff to plenty of people).
Like ‘Garden State,’ ‘Wish I Was Here’ casts Braff as a struggling actor who is not making much of a living in his career or in his personal life. As Aidan Bloom, Braff is a young husband and father of two still trying to make the Hollywood dream happen, while also trying to fulfill his other roles (you know, the ones that actually matter). Thrown into a tailspin by the news that his father’s (Mandy Patinkin, who is wonderful here) nasty cancer has returned, Aidan is suddenly forced to deal with the fact that his dad is dying and he’s using the money he promised for Aidan’s kids’ elementary school tuition to try an experimental treatment. What’s a failed actor to do? How about home-school those kiddos and try to reunite his father and estranged brother (Josh Gad)? Why not, really? What else is there to do in an indie dramedy?
Shockingly, Aidan isn’t so great at home-schooling, even though it does serve as an interesting way to get to know his kids. Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) hates school, though it’s hard to tell if he’s adverse to the Judaism that serves as the centerpiece of his old school or just education, while Grace (Joey King, the emotional center of the film) is obsessed with her religion and heartily embraces Orthodox ways of thinking (when Grace looks ahead, she dreams of the day she shaves her head so that only her husband will think she’s pretty). Yeah, this home-school thing is not going to work out. Instead, Aidan’s apparent maturation process is acted out as a series of lessons for his poor children, who are forced to join their dad on a camping trip that centers on his own epiphanies, only to return home to manual labor at their own house. It’s doubtful that the kids have learned much of anything, mainly because this is the Zach Braff Show and we’re all just watching it.
It doesn’t help that Braff doesn’t come across as a believable father, at least at first, and the fact that he seems more comfortable in the role by the time the film concludes is perhaps the best part of his performance. As his wife Sarah, Kate Hudson is given a few moments to shine (a hospital-set discussion with her and Patinkin is a highlight), but she’s firmly relegated to a supporting role here.
Also popping up is Josh Gad as said estranged brother Noah, who wiles his days away in his messy RV, perched on a high Malibu hill with an ocean view, ensuring that his movable home is worth more than most people make in their lives. Shiftless like his brother, Noah spends his time trolling celebrities on Twitter (though his locked account guarantees no celebs will ever see his insults, making it either a hilarious plot point or a minor mistake) and wondering why his dad thinks he’s such a loser. Noah wants to “blog,” though it’s never clear about what, and when a pretty girl (played by Ashley Greene, who apparently owes someone a favor, considering how underused and unnecessary she is here) wearing half a furry costume shows up on his doorstep and bitches at him about his father’s dog, he suddenly has an overwhelming desire to build his own costume and use it to impress her at Comic-Con. Rest assured, this little bit of narrative motion and character detail is as wholly unearned as it sounds, and just about anything involving Noah feels unnecessary and shoehorned in for late-breaking emotional returns.
Braff is also still interested in presenting weirdness and quirkiness for the sake of weirdness and quirkiness – sure, a rabbi on a Segway looks funny, but just what does it add to the film itself? – and the effect is wearing. A subplot centering on a childhood dream of Aidan and Noah (to be a sort of superhero alien) is indicative of this grating tic, as fantasy sequences of Noah in a space suit enacting what looks like a video game appear frequently and should have been cut immediately. Braff eventually tries to turn those sequences and what they mean into some grand metaphor, but it doesn’t stick (or make much sense), and it should have all been lost in the editing room (too bad about all those special effects, though).
‘Wish I Was Here’ isn’t a bad film or a stupid film or a film without emotion, but it’s a film without finesse and evolution, and it illuminates just how little Braff and his work have grown over the course of 10 years. There’s little doubt that Braff (and, yes, probably also the other Braff) are sincere in their intentions, but those intentions are puerile and just sort of cheap, and they are set perfectly to a Bon Iver song.