A film review by Craig J. Koban November 9, 2014 


2014, R, 120 mins.


Zach Braff as Aidan Bloom  /  Kate Hudson as Sarah Bloom  /  Joey King as Grace  /  Pierce Gagnon as Tucker  /  Mandy Patinkin as Saul Bloom  /  Josh Gad as Noah  /  Ashley Greene as Janine  /  Jim Parsons as Paul

Directed by Zach Braff  /  Written by Zach and Adam Braff 

It has been ten years since writer/director/actor Zach Braff burst onto the movie scene with his novice directorial effort GARDEN STATE, I film that I admired so much that I placed it on my list for the Ten Best Films of 2004.  I found that the film intimately spoke to me and towards the general malaise of uncertainty that people of my generation were experiencing at the time…and perhaps still do.  

Now, after a successful and very public Kickstarter campaign – which raised over $3 million from nearly 50,000 people, $2 million of which were raised in just two days – Braff is back in front of and behind the camera for WISH I WAS HERE (which he also co-wrote with his brother Adam), and even though his first film in a decade is a welcome thing, long overdo and a genuinely heartfelt and personal endeavor, it nevertheless covers ample themes and narrative arcs that we’ve seen before, like, for example and ironically enough, in GARDEN STATE. 

This is disappointing, to a large degree.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with WISH I WAS HERE being a spiritual sequel, so to speak, to GARDEN STATE (it’s nice to see Braff essentially play the same type of character, albeit older and with more domestic responsibilities), but the nagging similarities between both of Braff’s films are numbingly obvious.  The main characters in both films are actors struggling to make a name for themselves and are on the verge of leaving their dreams of succeeding in the profession behind.  Both films detail the mostly tumultuous relationship between the main character and his father, which reaches crisis levels of estrangement.  Both films have the main character go on a series of wacky misadventures to sort through the daily anxieties that they’re experiencing that stymie them moving forward.  Hell, both films even have quirky and idiosyncratic dialogue and pop/indie tunes blaring on the soundtrack to accentuate the humor and drama.  Braff, if anything, should sue himself for plagiarism. 



I'll give credit, though, to Braff for at least garnering some strong performances from his cast, not to mention earnestly and sincerely tackling some weighty material with an honesty and matter-of-fact gumption.  Braff himself is also in solid form playing Aidan Bloom, an out-of-work actor that’s struggling to earn a living to support his two kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) and wife Sarah (Kate Hudson, as an refined and natural as she’s been on camera in a long time).  Aidan still has high aspirations of becoming a full-time working actor, much to the chagrin of his father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin, lending some much needed low-key gravitas to the production), a staunchly religious Jewish man that believes that Aidan has really dropped the ball on not only raising his kids in the proper Jewish faith, but also in not wanting “man-up” and look at other career options. 

Gabe also has issues with his other son Noah (Josh Gad), whom Gabe once thought was a genius and had potential for academic greatness, but now has become a pseudo hermit that lives in beachside trailer and wants to be a blogger.  Things for Aidan and his family really go south when it's discovered that Gabe is quickly dying of cancer and can no longer afford to fund Aidan’s kid’s education at a lucrative and exclusive private school.  Of course, the children are relatively well adjusted compared to their parents, especially the daughter, who seems to healthily embrace her Jewish faith and is proud of her grandfather’s spiritual legacy.  Aidan, on the other hand, feels that his children have essentially become brainwashed, so he decides to home school them, with predictably wacky and embarrassing results. 

Braff seems equal to the task of honing in on significant issues of life and death, the fragility of marriage when placed under economic stresses, father/son relationships, and how dreams sometimes can be easily crushed by the harsh reality of the times one exists in.  There’s a certain poignancy that typifies his handling of this divergent material, even when discipline is lacking in marrying them altogether to create a meaningful whole.  The title of the film itself hints at the existentialist dilemma that most of us, I think, struggle with on a daily basis.  We often disengage ourselves from what’s truly important in life and staring right in front of us.  For Aidan, he has placed so much emphasis on pursuing his own acting dreams that he fails to register the sublime pleasures of being a father and husband.  He's so trapped within his own sad-sacked shell of apprehension that investing in the problems of others is difficult. 

Braff, as he displayed in GARDEN STATE, can play these lovable losers/slackers with a freewheeling composure.  He’s complimented well by Kate Hudson, whose wife character is developed with a bit more dimension than what I was frankly expecting.  Hudson has a wonderful scene of reflection when Sarah reveals to Aidan – during one evening when the pair connect at a lifeguard station near the beach – why she’s having issues with continuing to support her husband’s dreams when they appear to be unattainable.  Hudson also has a remarkably tender and truthful exchange with Patinkin while Gabe is bedridden and near death.  Sarah has always felt distant from her father-in-law, perhaps because she’s only half-Jewish, but in this heartbreaking scene she explicitly relays to Gabe what both he and his sons need to do to reconcile all of their respective issues with the other.  Their whole exchange is impeccably rendered. 

I just wished that WISH I WAS HERE had more scenes of sobering reflection like that one.  Braff seems indifferent when it comes to both tone and plot; too much of the time the film awkwardly segues back and forth from breezy, situational comedy to teary-eyed dramatic pathos, which leads to the film feeling disconnected within itself.  The overall plot here as well seems to meander around with a bit too much aimlessness before it germinates into something consequential.  There are some concepts – like an ongoing fantasy dreamlike sequence involving Aidan fondly recalling how he and his sibling used to rely on the fertility of their imaginations when playing together as children – that seems kind of hopelessly abstract and frustratingly vague; they feel like sequences from a whole different film that are kind of messily shoehorned in here. 

Braff, if anything, has natural instincts as a writer and director.  GARDEN STATE unequivocally proved that and, to some extent, he displays his ample talents in WISH I WAS HERE as well (there are many instances in the film when Braff demonstrates a good ear for the casualness and frankness of everyday conversations that exist between family members).  Braff has the goods to make a film like this work, but WISH I WAS HERE simply doesn’t satisfactorily hold up.  It has thoughtfully rendered and endearing characters, deeply committed and empowered performances, and a noble minded willingness to have something grand to say about life and death, but the scope and depth of the film’s message seems at an ill-at-ease arm’s length for Braff throughout.  There’s a great follow-up film to GARDEN STATE to be made by this multi-talented filmmaker…WISH I WAS HERE is sadly not it. 

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