While it may follow in the tone of his first directorial effort from ten years ago, Garden State, Zach Braff’s Kickstarter funded Wish I Was Here leans a little too hard on the melodrama and it never feels as assured. It’s certainly doing an admirable job of blending crowd pleasing inspiration with world weary and often quirky pathos, but the blend this time out is a bit off.
Struggling actor Aidan Bloom (Braff) is trying to find himself while balancing his obligations as a father to two young kids (Joey King, Pierce Gagno) and husband to a wife (Kate Hudson) who feels like she’s being held back. His dad (Mandy Patinkin) can’t afford to send the grandkids to private school anymore, and his eccentric genius brother (Josh Gad) isn’t much help. Aidan takes up homeschooling his kids (holding a belief that public education is something to be feared), and along the way they discover a lot about each other and Aidan is finally given some time to reflect on his own life in the process.
While not without some of the same relatable charm that made his only other directorial outing such a smash hit, Braff’s work here cycles through the funny moments, the touching bits and the sad times at a breakneck pace, never allowing the tender moments to be properly taken in before immediately darting to the next one.
Still, while many will focus on the shortcomings of the pacing, Braff might not get nearly enough credit for making films that look phenomenal. Reteaming with cinematographer Lawrence Sher, they make middle class southern California like a very nice place to live that no one can truly enjoy because they’re wasting too much time driving everywhere.
While it’s an emotional continuation of some of the themes he explored in Garden State, there are both positive and negative ramifications to that. It’s a universally relatable story for anyone in their 30’s; that period where you think you’re mature, but you’re still prone to screw ups. Wish I Was Here feels like a storyteller leaving everything on the table because he might never get to tell another story ever again. The film comes chock full of sidebar stories that feel out of place and only stay in to give some of Braff’s friends cameos. It also sets the bar of expectations too high, too fast with an opening audition sequence that strikes the perfect blend of quirk, heart, and hilarity that the fest of the film should have. It strikes some funny and heartfelt chords after that, but the blending of those feelings never happens that well again. Over the course of two hours, Wish I Was Here often feels like a ship that keeps listing to one side over and over again.
Braff wears his likeable everyman charm on his sleeve and slides into the role nicely as someone ill equipped to lead a dysfunctional family through a crisis. The rest of his adult cast doesn’t get very much room to manoeuvre, though. His chemistry with Hudson never feels all that vital, and her role is underwritten. Gad and Patinkin fall into the same category feeling more like two dimensional lampposts that the main character has to interact with at times to move the film along, never really giving the audience a chance to openly engage with them despite the best efforts of the actors involved.
On the flip side of it all, though, his dynamic with the kids was is fantastic and that sells the overall narrative. King (who was Braff’s equally CGI’d co-star in Oz: The Great and Powerful) comes through with a stellar performance that externalizes the emotions of almost every character in the film. She has an emotional rawness that sells the tender moments, and a whip smart sense of comedic timing. With her already impressive resume, this young 14 year old actress announces that she is ready for bigger and better things.
For better or worse, Wish I Was Here turned out exactly the way that Braff wanted to make the film, and it’s easy to see now why it was such a tough studio sell that he needed to bring his vision to Kickstarter. I don’t think those who contributed will be let down. There’s something admirable about supporting an artist that you like who isn’t willing to compromise their vision. As a fan of Braff, I’m willing to let some of the more major problems with the film slide. It’s emotionally uneven, but it has enough where it counts.