Cast: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Josh Gad, Mandy Patinkin
Director: Zach Braff
Running Time: 2 hours 0 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
In a perfect world, Zach Braff's kickstarter-funded second feature would prove the exception to the rule; the kind of film that makes crowd-sourcing a viable option for wildly successful individuals in Hollywood. But this isn't a perfect world and Wish I Was Here is far from a perfect film. In fact, it's so far below mediocre that it makes Braff's insufferable kickstarter campaign all the more egregious. Though Braff has gone on record various times claiming this was some type of "art project" labor of love, free from the constraints of the Hollywood studio system, the truth of the matter is that is this another unfortunate case of an artist riding the coattails of his notoriety-- not to mention the cult fandom of his 2004 debut Garden State. For Braff to frame the narrative as the outsider indie writer-director moving outside the broken Tinseltown system with a little help from his Kickstarter friends, is almost as dispiriting as the fruits of his labor; a middle-aged lament about middle-aged problems that throws in cloying father/children sentiments, maudlin deathbed confessionals, and cringe-worthy struggling actors trying to make it in Hollywood claptrap. It's a movie about Zach Braff, written by Zach Braf, and directed by Zach Braff, that just happens to be funded by a litany of well-meaning fans of Zach Braff.
Many will rush to the defense of Wish I Was Here by pointing to it's earnest sincerity, but even though there's little doubt Braff is being genuine here, it doesn't change the fact that what he's come up with amounts to little more than a Garden State update for the 35+ crowd. There are the same basic thematic elements at work here; a dying parent, a frustrated actor, a winsome indie pop soundtrack, an attempt at blending whimsy and pathos, but it never bothers to ask the most basic question of all; why should audiences give a fuck about a bunch of self-absorbed LA types whining about their boring lives?
The film follows out-of-work actor Aidan Bloom (Braff), who spends most of his time either bitching about the economy or how to pay for his children's education at an expensive yeshiva school, formerly funded by his estranged father (Mandy Patinkin). There's an angelic, long-suffering wife (Kate Hudson) a Comic-Con nerd brother (Josh Gad) who lives a slacker life inside a pot-infused trailer, and of course, mass pandering to aging-hipster ipod playlists. The basis for Aidan's existential crisis, beyond his financial and marriage woes, is the realization that his father is dying of cancer; a realization that could, in the right hands, be handled delicately and with emotional truth. But Zach isn't a delicate filmmaker, and so much screen time is allotted to lame fantasy sequences, dog piss jokes, digs at Judaism, and slowmo walking towards the camera montages, that whatever genuine insight might be lurking beneath the contrivances story is completely jettisoned.
The fact that Wish I Was Here is deeply personal to Braff goes without saying (the script was co-written with his brother Adam), but the line between a passion project and a vanity project is tenuous, and Braff can't get the disparate tones of his film to cohere, much less give us fully-realized characters to sympathize with. It's entirely possible to make an interesting picture about self-aggrandizing rich white people "struggling" to get by, but that would take a deftly satirical touch. Wish I Was Here, though, never bothers with satire. Conversely, it never even attempts to present itself as taking place in the real world, either. For all it's sitcom-level attempts at comedy (a running joke about a swear jar, for example, is the film's comedic nadir), is in the final analysis something of a middle-aged weepy; a film trying desperately, and failing, to elicit tears from it's forced philosophical epiphanies and fortune cookie life lessons. For every small moment that works; (a scene between Hudson's compassionate wife and Patinkin's stricken father in the hospital has an undercurrent of real truthfulness), there's a dozen or more that fall flat due to Braff's insistence on bludgeoning us over the head with artificial emotion. A case in point; a moment where Aidan's children hand their dying grandfather some googles so he can see his dead wife in the afterlife is manipulative beyond belief, a jarringly false note in a movie filled with false notes. It's almost as if Braff tried to cram every New Age idea about self-actualization into one movie; there's a "let's wait on a mountain for a universal revelation" scene, a Robert Frost poem being read aloud while homeschooling, and even a Brittany Spears-esque shaving of the head bit involving Aidan's young daughter. This last scenario, which is supposedly about the young girl's identity confusion concerning her Jewishness, is mainly tacked on so that Braff can stage a slow-motion sequence of her wearing a pink wig set to anthemic indie rock.
Wish I Was Here tries to go somewhere heartfelt and deep in it's final reel. Many tears are shed. Grievances are forgiven. Group hugs are welcomed. Aidan Bloom comes to realize that the universe doesn't revolve around him. His brother finally breaks his estrangement from his distant father while also making room to bone a horny cosplay girl. In it's own determined way to be a kind of filmic Hallmark greeting card for reconciliation and embracing one's path in life, Wish I Was Here fails to engage the tough questions it raises. Melodrama, familial angst, and the fear of losing a loved one are shoehorned in with quirky asides involving a rabbi riding a Segway and Hudson bring sexually harassed by a creepy coworker. At 120 minutes, Wish I Was Here is also tragically self-indulgent, with Aidan's puppy dog man-child being an especially unlikeable protagonist. At one point he tells his brother (wearing a fishbowl on his head as part of his Comic-Con costume) that "the problem with hiding in a fishbowl is that everyone can see you." No Mr. Braff, the problem with making a crowd-funded movie is that well-intentioned backers of your project don't get their money back.