Review: Wish I Was Here (Sundance 2014)
PLOT: Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is a struggling actor trying to juggle the responsibilities of fatherhood with the pursuit of his acting dreams of glory- while his patient wife (Kate Hudson) supports the family working at a menial data entry job. When his cancer-stricken father (Mandy Patinkin) finds himself unable to pay Aidan's children's tuition at their exclusive Jewish private school, Aidan begins homeschooling the kids- Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon)- and in the process finally starts to become the man his family needs him to be.
REVIEW: I'd never root against Zach Braff. While GARDEN STATE arguably gave birth to a lot of things- such as the “manic pixie dream girl” and hipster soundtrack- that became indie film clichés, it shouldn't be held responsible for setting the mold. The only reason it was copied was because it was so successful. In its time (hard to believe it was ten whole years ago), it was seen as a fresh, invigorating coming-of-age film that marked Braff- then only known for SCRUBS- as an indie auteur to watch.
It's too bad it took a decade for Braff to finally make his follow-up, as WISH I WAS HERE can't help but find itself the victim of expectations- which are either too high (from some die-hard fans) or too low (with many revisionist GARDEN STATE haters wanting it to fail). In my opinion, WISH I WAS HERE falls somewhere in the middle. Having been financed largely through Kickstarter (with the donors thanked during the closing credits) Braff was able to have complete creative control, which proves to be a double-edged sword.
In some ways this feels like a sequel to GARDEN STATE, with Braff once again playing a struggling actor. Both films are about the loss of a parent while the protagonist lives through a particularly vulnerable time. In the first film, Braff was in his twenties and trying to figure it all out while dealing with the death of his mom. Here, he's ten years older, but no wiser, still chasing his fruitless dream while trying (and failing) to support his family. Here, it's his father whose death haunts him, although as played by Patinkin, the character isn't already dead, with the drama here coming from the prospect of losing him.
Maybe it's that Braff's ten years older, but his character in WISH I WAS HERE is far less likable than he was in GARDEN STATE. Forcing his wife to work a dead-end job just so he can go on auditions while his dad pays the bills makes him come off as irresponsible. He's not even really looking for work- he's just trying to hold on to a dream that's clearly not going to happen, while his family lives on the edge of poverty (albeit a genteel, Hollywood poverty, with them owning a picturesque L.A home). The first hour of the movie is virtually unwatchable, with Braff oddly sprinkling in fantasy sci-fi sequences that are supposed to convey the character's inner-life, but never really add anything to the film other than make it feel alternately goofy and pretentious.
Thankfully, things pick up in the second half, where Braff's relationship with his wife, played by a very good Kate Hudson, is given more of a focus. Those who criticized Portman in GARDEN STATE will likely have a field day with Hudson's similarly saintly character, although Hudson's able to give her a bit of an edge, and has easily the movie's best scene where she comforts and confronts Patinkin's miserly dad, who earlier puts her down for only being half-Jewish, and encouraging her husband's idiotic dreams.
Religion also plays an unexpectedly large part in WISH I WAS HERE, with Braff's kids having their education paid for by Patinkin, with the proviso that they attend a devoutly Jewish private school to the effect that the family's daughter is so indoctrinated that early on she shaves her head because that's what she thinks God wants her to do. Braff's attitude on religion remains unclear by the end of the film, with the film initially seeming as critical as something like The Coen Bros A SERIOUS MAN, although he backs off later on. Even Patinkin's strict Jewish dad comes off as a bit of a pussy cat later on, with him doing a good job in probably the film's meatiest part.
Like GARDEN STATE, music also plays a big role here, although the soundtrack seems fairly subtle this time out, with the only really obvious exceptions being a great all-new track by Bon Iver and a new closing song by The Shins.
Running long at 120 minutes, WISH I WAS HERE would benefit enormously from some trims, although the movie has some fundamental problems that likely can't be solved by cutting. The most obvious problem is Josh Gad, who plays Braff's lazy, oafish brother. Gad's part is two-dimensional, and not as amusing as probably intended, as a subplot with Ashley Greene as his unlikely love interest feels tacked on. That, coupled with the really rough-going first hour makes WISH I WAS HERE a difficult film to admire, even though it has its moments.
Hopefully the audience that's looking forward to the movie (and who helped finance it) will find it worth the wait or the money they may have poured into the Kickstarter campaign. In this end, this is the opinion Braff should be most concerned with (and he seemed genuinely grateful for their contribution at the post Sundance screening Q&A), but for me, WISH I WAS HERE never really works, and proves to be a disappointing follow-up to a film that was one of my touchstones a decade ago.