Sundance 2014: Zach Braff's 'Wish I Was Here' Falters Despite Charm
by Ethan Anderton
January 20, 2014
Back at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, "Scrubs" star Zach Braff got behind the camera for his directorial debut with an indie called Garden State. In the years since, some claim that the film hasn't aged well, and has lost its flare that won over many audiences 10 years ago. Well, Braff is back behind the camera, and as someone who still enjoys his debut indie, his sophomore effort Wish I Was Here just doesn't measure up. The film stumbles in spite of Braff's charm and comedy amidst a story of self-discovery, love and family. What's truly disappointing is that the film works for awhile and then it comes tumbling down.
Braff again takes the role of a struggling actor, but this time his character Aidan Bloom is a little more stable and not just floating through life. Bloom is a family man with a wife (Kate Hudson) and two kids, played wonderfully by Joey King (White House Down, Crazy Stupid Love) and Pierce Gagnon (Looper). But he hasn't made money as an actor for awhile, with a dandruff commercial being his last substantial paycheck and his wife is beginning to get a little impatient. The other shoe drops when Bloom learns that his father (the incomparable Mandy Patinkin) can no longer pay for the kids to attend Jewish Yeshiva due to the cost of an experimental medicine in order to fight a resurgence of cancer.
Getting to know the family is one of the best parts of the film. From the breakfast scene with a very colorful discussion about the swear jar with Bloom's precocious children to dropping them off at school and unsuccessfully avoiding the rabbis there. It's here that Braff's penchant for witty comedy shines, and the film seems to be heading in the right direction. But once the inciting incident forces Bloom to homeschool his kids, that's when things start getting a little off track. While Braff's interaction with the kids on their first day of "school" is amusing, it gets a little outlandish, bordering on CBS sitcom levels of goofiness.
One of the biggest problems the film has are the cutscenes in between the real story, featuring a heroic dream sequence that keeps the audience guessing about the connection until the end. And upon wrapping up this stylish tangent, it turns out to be a completely unnecessary detour. Oh, and let's not forget about Josh Gad as Braff's lazy, younger brother, living life by squandering the inheritance left behind by their late mother. While Gad has funny banter and solid chemistry with Braff, his subplot with Ashley Greene (Twilight) as a furry is extraneous, ridiculous and seriously detracts from the film's emotional core.
There's some greatness in Wish I Was Here, even if some of the later scenes border on being overly sentimental and vaguely profound (at least for Braff's character arc). Braff has grown a bit as a storyteller, but the film as a whole just doesn't completely work. Even Kate Hudson's sidestory with an inappropriate cubicle mate (Michael Weston) feels forced, and for no good reason. I know the film was funded by Kickstarter, but Braff didn't have any of his contributors help write the script too, right?
That might sound harsh, but Wish I Was Here is just disappointing. Even the soundtrack doesn't seem as impressive as Braff's memorable collection of songs from Garden State. If the film deserves some praise, it's for the performances from the entire cast. Mandy Patinkin is astounding as usual, Braff works well as a leading man and this is the best work Kate Hudson has done in years. But King and Gagnon truly steal the show as Braff's rugrats. It's the third act of the film that really shows off all their talents, but unfortunately, they would be better served in a film that trims the fat and stays on track.
Ethan's Sundance 2014 Rating: 5 out of 10
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