Wish I Was Here
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 14th September 2014
Zach Braff took up the mantle of slacker comedy many years ago with his feature debut, Garden State, which he wrote, directed and starred in (as the jack of all trades has wont to do). Wish I Was Here rings like an updating on his fictional life, with Braff’s character now 35 years old, a father of two and having reached a career crossroads: should he stick to trying to make it as an actor, or get a “real job” so he can support his family?
Happily married to Kate Hudson’s Sarah and with two great kids who roll their eyes and spout aphorisms that signal their preternatural intelligence, Aidan’s woes epitomise middle-class, Los Angelean malaise. He’s not Jewish enough to understand the traditions of his kids’ school, nor African American enough to land a decent acting role. When his father (a wonderfully wry Mandy Patinkin from Homeland) is suddenly taken unwell, Aidan’s greater selfish concern is how to keep his children in private school. Meanwhile, his slobby brother (a funny, if clichéd, Josh Gad from Thanks for Sharing) resists all enticements to come back into the family fold in times of trial.
With no fewer than 14 co-producers and nearly 20 others profusely thanked in the credits, you’d be forgiven for thinking the film’s shortcomings belie a pie that’s had too many fingers in it. True, Wish I Was Here was somewhat controversially crowd-funded to the tune of $3 million, and Braff got it in the neck from some sides who deemed this unnecessary and greedy for someone who’s been successfully in show business for over a decade.
But to be fair (or not), the unevenness seems to be purely scripted. As delightful as the characters are (even Braff’s selfish dad has his moments, and the kids are terrific), the dialogue is “pleasant” rather than laugh out loud, and Wish I Was Here feels largely unsubstantial as either comedy or family drama. With the inevitable ruminations on faith and death, there are some sweet moments (Hudson surprises with a particularly beautiful, well-acted scene) and the chemistry between some parties is affecting, but most of the time we’re just seeing good actors doing not much with not much of a script.
Overall the impact of the story will depend on the viewer’s personal resonance with the familial travails. To give Braff credit for not hammering home the pathos, the flipside is his movie ends up feeling a bit lightweight.