Wish I Was Here has copped a lot of undeserved flack; Zach Braff’s foray into Kickstarter to film the thing raised the ire of those who saw his use of the crowdfunding site as a co-option of a resource for everyday Joes and Janes. A lot of critics entered the cinema with well-sharpened knives, and found a juicy carcass to carve into within. While Braff brought some of this on himself – it’s hard to see the necessity of crowdfunding a film that takes a five minute detour into what must have been a profitable piece of Aston Martin product placement – however the end result is not as disastrous as you might have been led to believe.
Braff abandons the My First Indie Movie aesthetic that defined his first film, Garden State, for a more commercial approach; the only thing indie about this slickly produced picture is its soundtrack (dominated by the kind of music that would’ve sounded fresh a decade ago – Cat Power, Bon Iver, Badly Drawn Boy and, of course, The Shins). In fact, Wish I Was Here is closer to the feel of Scrubs, the sitcom that launched Braff into the wider pop culture consciousness, right down to the trademark blend of fantasy sequences, easy jokiness and saccharine sentimentality.
Scrubs succeeded as a sitcom even if it didn’t always land the emotion; oddly enough, Wish I Was Here is the opposite. Many jokes fall flat by straying toward broadness, while the emotional aspect of the narrative succeeds (often despite itself). That incredibly conventional narrative revolves around the first world problems of Aidan Bloom (Braff), an unsuccessful actor who’s forced to deal with an unhappy wife (Kate Hudson) trapped in an unsatisfying office job and an ailing father (Mandy Patenkin) whose cancer remission means that Bloom’s children have to be withdrawn from their fancy Jewish school. It reminded me strongly of Gore Verbinski’s underrated The Weatherman but, really, the plot outline is so familiar that you could find countless comparisons: essentially, it’s just another film about a jerky privileged guy learning to be less jerky.
Some of the aforementioned undeserved criticism is directed at the first world problems posed by the film. I understand the impulse to mock the problems of a “struggling” actor who lives in what is essentially a mansion and may no longer be able to afford private school, but problems are problems (however trifling they might seem to a film critic who’s scrounging for scraps by the dumpster after the screening). Owning a big house doesn’t make financial insecurity any less pressing.
Wish I Was Here works when it focuses on the relationship between Braff and his daughter – Joey King who, for once, isn’t an airheaded, self-obsessed bimbo but an insecure young woman with a devotion to the Jewish faith her father doesn’t share – and the strained relationship Braff shares with his dying father. Sure, there’s nothing especially original about the latter. It’s all soft-lit bedside scenes and clichéd curmudgeonry. Nonetheless, something genuine shines through (though I may have lost my ability to be objective in these matters while my own mother is in a similar situation).
Look past these elements to the remainder of the cast and the film’s flaws become more apparent. I can’t really complain about the underdeveloped characterisation of Braff’s son, played by Pierce Gagnon as a disobedient scamp: if nothing else it was nice to see Gagnon in a friendlier role than the imposing infant he portrayed in Looper. Braff’s brother is played by Josh Gad, an actor with a reputation for being an incredibly funny, but consistently misused actor. I don’t think I’ve actually seen him be funny yet, so I’m beginning to doubt that reputation, and Wish I Was Here doesn’t help matters any. His flaccid sub-plot – revolving around creating a Comic-Con costume to get some “poontang” – seems to be entirely predicated on the preposition that “silly costumes are funny.” It doesn’t help that the worst elements of the screenplay find their way into Gad’s storyline, including this clunker: “You know what the problem with hiding in a fish bowl is? Everyone can see you” (delivered while Gad’s head is in a fish bowl, because of course it is).
Maybe “worst” is an overstatement, though, because there’s still Kate Hudson’s sub-plot to contend with. She initially inhabits a buzzkill role, like a filmic version of Skyler White or Carmela Soprano, except where she chides her husband for his poor language and unsuccessful auditions rather than his life of crime. She spends her days enduring sexual harassment in what Braff appears to think constitutes modern office work (a Kafkaesque prison shot through an insipid green filter) and her nights berating him for his failed dream of becoming an actor.
The failure of her character is that she ultimately exists to validate Aidan Bloom’s insecurities, not to question them; any friction between the couple evaporates after they share some long-deferred loving (not to put too fine a point on it, he fucks her doubts away). This is a trait the film shares: it introduces a host of problems and then either allows them to evaporate (the dilemma of what should be done for schooling remains unresolved by the end of the film) or solves them with an unwieldy deus ex machina (with perfect jobs and successful litigation appearing from thin air). Those first world problems shouldn’t be trivial, but Braff demonstrates little to no interest in treating them as anything but.
This is a shame, because there’s no reason that Wish I Was Here couldn’t have worked beyond the father/daughter and father/son relationships mentioned earlier. There’s an undercurrent of authenticity beneath the smoothed-over-sentimentality and Braff remains both a charismatic comedic actor and a competent, if unimaginative director. But he’s more interested in striving for bland “inspirational” moments (there’s two separate montages featuring poetry sombrely read as voiceover) than respecting the problems he poses for his characters or living up to the comedic potential hinted at some genuinely funny early scenes. Wish I Was Here isn’t as dire as you might have heard, but it’s not especially good either.