Wish I Was Here (2014) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language and some sexual content
Running Time: 106 min.
Cast: Zach Graff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Michael Weston, Ashley Greene, Jim Parsons, Donald Faison
Director: Zach Braff
Screenplay: Zach Braff, Adam J. Braff
Review published July 31, 2014
Aidan Bloom (Braff, Oz the Great and Powerful) is a 35-year-old husband and father living in Los Angeles, struggling to bring his dreams of becoming a successful actor to life. In a rut, his life shifts even more when his father (Patinkin, The Wind Rises) turns up with terminal cancer and a short time to live. Aidan is also trying to convince his estranged brother Noah (Gad, Frozen) to let bygones be bygones and reunite this family for his last days. Meanwhile, the family has issues of their own come to a head, as wife Sarah (Hudson, Clear History) is being sexually harassed at work, while the kids, Tucker (Gagnon, Rio 2) and Grace, are not able to go to private school any longer, so Aidan is seeking to home school them. Aidan, who has been coasting through life for years, must finally take responsibility and become the family's patriarch now that Dad's not going to be there any longer to provide.
Zach Braff's first feature film as a director, Garden State, was a surprise indie crossover hit upon its release in 2004. Though it is a slow, contemplative, introspective piece, it struck a chord, thanks to its insightfulness and a soundtrack of perfectly placed soundtrack selections (one wonders if his movies aren't just a result of what he comes up with while listening to his music player in shuffle mode). Despite showing an affinity for marrying mood with vision, it has taken nearly a decade for Braff to get behind the director's chair again with Wish I Was Here, requiring a crowdsourcing campaign on Kickstarter to fund. Though it features a more mature person as the main character, and behind the camera, it does show that perhaps Braff has a lot to learn when it comes to trying to serve up a drama from the heart.
The problem with Wish I Was Here isn't that Braff had used up all his good ideas in his first effort, it's that he has vastly overthought this follow-up, particularly in how much quirky personality traits he has decided to write into his characters. It feels like Braff wants us to laugh at them and their foibles, and yet he makes nearly every character we see on the screen so overly whimsical and hyper-eccentric to how real people behave, that they become unlikeable to us.
One of the worst of the forays into cuteness involves Noah's attempt to craft a costume for San Diego's Comic-Con in competition with his female neighbor's "furry" costume. This is followed by another cloying scene involving Aidan trying to finagle a test drive with his kids in an Aston Martin that his son Tucker has been obsessed with for no known reason. Then there's the scene where Grace shaves her head in eager anticipation of her Jewish religious rites, wearing a blue wig (a la Hit-Girl) for the remainder of the film, as if the sight of a child in a colored wig is a funny gag in and of itself -- or of Tucker carrying a power drill around.
There's a lot more Jewish humor in the film that perhaps may only be funny to those of the faith, and perhaps not a lot even at that. Plus, there's a heavy-handed metaphor running through the film depicting a daydream of Aidan as a spaceman with a sword, running from a mysterious cloaked figure, in some sort of alien fantasy terrain. While the CG effects are an interesting touch for a Kickstarter-funded flick, it's mostly needless and useless to the overall plot.
While Wish I Was Here is a bit too obnoxious to find the traction needed to be the heartfelt dramedy that Braff has in mind, there are a few things to like. It is beautifully shot, and Braff does manage to pull a few strong scenes off when he isn't going for obvious laughs. Plus, Kate Hudson gives one of her stronger performances, especially playing off of the always-on Mandy Patinkin. If only they were given better characters in a better movie...
And yet, the rest of it is just tries to be too precious to stomach, resulting in an overload of overthought ideas that feel too far removed from anyone's reality to properly relate to. Maybe 10 years to come up with a follow-up to your surprise hit is a bit too long in the proverbial oven of ideas. "Wish I wasn't here," is probably a common thought among those in the audience for this labored comedy that just goes too hard for broke by overreaching its grasp. Your 'swear jar' may be full from what you mutter to yourself during the most saccharine and self-indulgent moments of Wish I Was Here.
©2014 Vince Leo