As a child who grew up watching Scrubs, I can comfortably say that Zach Braff has had a huge effect on my upbringing. I remember going to see Garden State when it came out, excited about seeing JD on the big screen, but pleasantly surprised to find Braff portraying a character that was the exact opposite of the goofy, sometimes flamboyant physician. Its influence was almost immediate, as its ideas and tone would soon be shared, dissected, and regurgitated out by indie filmmakers to follow. Films like 500 Days of Summer, Little Miss Sunshine, or even Juno would not have been produced without Garden State to pave the way. From its somber, yet uplifting soundtrack that introduced the world to bands like The Shins and Iron & Wine to its conception of the “manic-pixie-dream-girl” character that so many screenwriters now strive to create, Garden State brought a fresh take on being young and facing oblivion. Now, exactly ten years later, Zach Braff has returned to the big screen with Wish I Was Here, a film that, unlike its predecessor, will most likely only be remembered for the Kickstarter Campaign that allowed it to be made.
Back as director, writer, and star of the film, Zach Braff, once again, brings us the story of a struggling actor, Aidan Bloom, facing the loss of a parent, this time though, his character is a parent himself, dealing with the challenges of that apparent burden. Though Braff is charming and quite funny in the role, Aidan, at his core, is not a likeable character. He meanders through life, letting his wife, played by an endearing Kate Hudson, carry the burden of supporting the family financially and letting his father, the wonderful Mandy Patinkin, take care of his children’s education. However, when his father’s cancer returns and he’s no longer able to pay for the Jewish private school his children attend, Aidan is called upon to home-school his son and daughter. It’s an amicable task, but one that eventually results in him taping his children to a chair.
Wish I Was Here is not without humor and there is real heart in Aidan’s quest to teach his kids about life, but the film is so separated by individual character arcs that it’s hard to find a fluid story from all the pieces. Instead, the film is defined by moments, such as Joey King, playing Aidan’s daughter, shaving her head out of religious devotion or Kate Hudson comforting Aidan’s dying father, a cantankerous man who had previously scolded her for being only half-Jewish. These moments felt real and deeply meaningful, but didn’t feel connected to the larger plot, Aidan’s growth as a father and a human being. Some pieces even felt thrown in for flavor, like the gratuitis sci-fi fantasies that Aidan daydreams about or a plot involving Aidan’s brother, a serviceable Josh Gad, trying to sleep with a cos-player. These were the moments Braff was fighting to keep by financing the film through Kickstarter, but in actuality needed to be cut. Even when it tried to address hot-button issues, like raising children through organized religion, it was unable to touch upon anything deeper than a geriatric rabbi trying to operate a Segway.
The biggest flaw with Wish I Was Here is also its biggest advantage in that it feels like a recycled, mid-life version of Garden State. It’s somehow a bit more emotionally manipulative as Aidan’s father has not yet passed, but the struggle is still the same one Andrew Largeman faced after losing his mother and therefore very relatable and touching. In fact, the film manages to be extremely profound and moving in parts, but is never able to take itself seriously for long enough to form a connection. What Braff has succeeded in doing, though, is representing the generation of the lost as they transition into mid-life. How will I raise my children? Will I place them in organized religion? Will I teach them or will I want others to do it for me? Will I set my own dreams aside to support theirs? Will I be the kind of parent my parents were? These are the questions Braff asks in this film. His goal is never to answer them, but to start a conversation, to address a struggle that has no real solution, you just start to learn more along the way.
Review by Harrison Richlin