It’s always interesting to note how a small, independent film was able to get made. I like hearing or reading about the wheeling and dealing that needed to be done in order for someone’s passion project to finally see a release. It’s kind of uplifting. After the success of the Veronica Mars movie, which as I’m sure you know raised over double its asking rate via a hyper-lucrative Kickstarter campaign, actor/writer/director Zach Braff was compelled to do the same. He also was asking $2 million, and while he didn’t achieve nearly as much, or as quickly, he was able to raise nearly $2.26 million. That’s very impressive. I’m telling you all this up front so that you know I went into the fruits of Braff’s labor, Wish I Was Here, giving it a huge amount of indie goodwill. All it had to do was be pretty good and I’d have been satisfied. This, however, would not be quite as successful as the Kickstarter.
A decade ago, Braff wrote and directed the highly-successful Garden State, the soundtrack to which led to practically everybody (myself included) becoming a fan of The Shins. In the years after, Braff wrapped up a long run as lead character on the sitcom Scrubs, in which he directed several episodes. If his IMDb page is to be believed, his roles after that show ended have been few and far between, and that surely was the inspiration for at least part of Wish I Was Here, a movie he co-wrote with his brother Adam. They clearly had a lot of ideas about what kind of stories they’d like to tell and themes including faith, family, following dreams, reconciliation, and epiphany. All good things to explore in a movie. The problem is, of course, that not every movie needs everything.
The film follows Aidan Bloom (Braff), an actor in Los Angeles who hasn’t caught a break in a while. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) is the sole bread-winner, working some mundane data entry job at which she has to contend with a co-worker who constantly says inappropriate things. The couple’s children (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) go to a private Jewish school at which the daughter has become very devout, but her little brother remains unconvinced. The parents, it should be said, aren’t religious people and their kids only go there because Aidan’s father (Mandy Patinkin) pays for it, and Aidan’s afraid to send his kids to public school. The tuition hasn’t been paid in a while and when Aidan confronts his father about it he learns that his father’s cancer has come back, that he needs to stop paying for the kids’ school to pay for an experimental treatment, and that he likely only has a bit longer to live. A lot to handle already.
But that’s not all. Because of this, Aidan is forced to homeschool his kids for the remainder of the semester (which, apparently, you don’t have to be certified at all to do) until they can be sent to public school the following year. Aidan’s brother Noah (Josh Gad) is a shut-in blogger who lives in a trailer near the beach and who hasn’t spoken to their father in a year, and has to intention of changing that just because the old man is dying. And if THAT weren’t enough, Aidan also still believes he can make it in Hollywood, and doesn’t want to give up on his dream even though his wife has had to give up hers, and his father thinks he’s kind of a failure.
There are certainly issues with the script, but before I go down that path, I want to say that there are three or four truly wonderful scenes in the movie where the writing is really nice and the acting is fantastic. Many of the scenes in which Aidan is homeschooling the kids, or just spending time with them, really sparkle and the three actors really have wonderful chemistry. Another scene in the hospital between Braff and Patinkin, and another between Hudson and Patinkin, are incredibly moving and feel very real. Far and away, Patinkin gives the best performance in the movie. He’s brilliant and understated and subtle and just wonderful. I was also really impressed by the two young actors, both of whom have a raw naturalness that obviously can’t be taught. It’s nice to see kids who are great actors already and one can hope they’ll stay that way for awhile.
Really, all of the cast is really good and the direction is economical without being televisual. There are lots of aspects about this movie to like a lot, yet I was left a bit cold and that comes down to the script. There’s just too much going on. Too many different storylines and threads and ideas for one movie. It’s a full 120 minutes, which is long for a family dramedy, but even that wasn’t a big deal since there were so many characters. It just doesn’t hang together the way it should. The Braff brothers try to explore so many different ideas that most of them don’t get fleshed out enough. We spend a lot of time with the family, and this is where it’s at its strongest, but the stuff about acting and about the sexually-harassing co-worker, and about Josh Gad’s weird and very unnecessary subplot involving him wanting to make a spaceman costume to enter a contest a Comic-Con (yes, Comic-Con) in order to impress his inexplicably hot cosplaying neighbor played by Ashley Greene, just really aren’t necessary. They’re trying to give all these characters their own individual life, but that lessens the impact of the main story.
There are also far too many deep, pondering monologues and scenes with really clunky, self-reflective dialogue that don’t ring true with the rest of the movie. It’s not that any of them are badly delivered (as much as a good actor can read less-than-stellar words); it’s just that they don’t fit with the movie and are clearly there to attempt to be poignant, except we don’t really know half the time which idea they’re meant to be poignant about.
Somewhere buried inside Wish I Was Here is a really great movie about a father who needs to grow up and does so through spending time teaching and learning from his kids while he deals with his own father’s impending death and maybe even the idea of faith which surrounds them all. It just happens to be surrounded by a lot of unnecessary cameos and plot threads that pay off only because the one scene was written to make that happen.
That all being said, I didn’t dislike the movie. I’m glad Zach Braff made it, and I think there are some really terrific things about it. And I don’t even blame him for wanting to put all those different, disparate ideas into one movie since I’m sure he doesn’t know if he’ll get to make another one. I hope he does get to. I’d love to see where he goes from here, having shaken out ten years worth of cobwebs.