I never liked Garden State, Zach Braff’s first turn as a writer/director/star, and I didn’t enjoy Scrubs. Frankly, I thought going to Kickstarter for this film was a shame because, let’s face it, if it was good, Hollywood would have eaten it up. Then I saw the trailer for Wish I Was Here, and the indie soundtrack and shiny, heartfelt images hit me in a warm, mushy way. I suddenly had to see the film that I originally had no interest in watching.
Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is a 35-year-old actor, if you consider a dandruff commercial acting. His wife just started a new job at the water company and feels sexually harassed by her cubical partner. His children are both going to a private Jewish school, a religion he gave up on. When he finds out the tuition is late because his father’s cancer is back, he does the one thing that any jobless father of two would do: nothing.
Oh, you were expecting a different kind of story? Bloom is a soulless character that never comes to life, mostly due to Braff’s mediocre dialogue writing, and inability to give a genuine performance. There’s absolutely no chemistry between him and anyone else in the cast. Kate Hudson struggles to get through her scenes with him, and the kids just seem to be going along for the ride.
Wish I Was Here runs nearly two hours. It’s jammed full of dialogue and scenes that aren’t needed. For example, there’s a scene where Aiden’s brother, Noah (played by Josh Gad), talks about how their father always puts him down and tells him that he is a disappointment. It all comes full circle in the San Diego Comi-Con finale, which feels tacked on just to please those who helped with the Kickstarter campaign. There are a number of other scenes like this, including Braff jerking off, which is fully realized when his wife shows up in the laundry room with a denim midriff and short shorts on.
I‘ve only walked out of two films in the last twenty years, but with Wish I Was Here, I reached a point where I contemplated making it three because the movie just isn’t good. Then I remembered that darn trailer I saw, and it taunted me because nothing in it had happened yet. So I stayed, and all of those enticing parts of the trailer are crammed into a twenty-minute period towards the end of the film.
The indie soundtrack is fantastic, so much so that I am almost tempted to buy it, or at least research the artists. The real reason I stuck with Wish I Was Here, though, is that Mandy Patinkin gives one damn fine performance, and every line is spoken with conviction and heart. There’s a scene with him in bed, putting down his worthless son, Aiden, and his granddaughter stops him mid rant. She offers him a gift, and that scene tugs at your heartstrings, but that’s what a film with a cancer subplot will do to you. Again, it all comes full circle – every sub plot, needed or not – and leaves the film feeling bloated, but with a “purpose”.
Here’s the sad truth, though: if you cut out the character of Aiden, which removes Zach Braff’s acting, change a few pieces around and extend the role of Noah, Wish I Was Here might be a fantastic film. That’s what pained me the most once the film ended. Yes, it had a few chuckles in it, and it tries its best to pull at those heartstrings, even succeeding at times, but in the end there is no connection with anyone. Braff’s character is so aloof in life that he isn’t interesting. His story becomes pointless and unfocused, and when you add in scenes that make no sense (the home schooling scene, the diving board poetry moment), it takes away from the film, and makes it clear that the script isn’t as tight as it should be.
In better hands, I Wish I Was Here could be an amazing film, and the next indie darling. Unfortunately, though, it is not, and that’s the saddest aspect of the film. The potential is there, but the effort and execution are not. Maybe Braff should stay “retired”, and leave the acting and writing to those who are better at it.