As someone who absolutely loved Zach Braff‘s directorial debut Garden State when it came out a decade ago, I’ve been looking forward to another outing as a filmmaker by the actor since then with a mix of anticipation and dread. Anticipation because if Braff could write/direct something half as good to me as Garden State, then I’d be very satisfied. Dread because…what if he was a one hit wonder? Well, now that I’ve seen his sophomore feature Wish I Was Here, I can gladly say that he’s far from that. To be fair, some might shrug this film off in the same way they did with his last movie, but I’m not one of them. This is an often hilarious and sometimes even profound dramedy that strikes me as what most Sundance flicks want to be. Quirky, yes, but also heart warming and with an interesting look at faith, family, and what it means to be a man. Braff’s writing (co-written with his brother Adam Braff) and directing are top notch here, while his performance as a leading man is understated but very effective. He also gives Kate Hudson her best part since perhaps even Almost Famous and she’s excellent here. With very little not to like here, I’d like to thank those who helped fund this Kickstarter and gave Braff the ability to make this movie his way. From the performances to the must own soundtrack to the feeling you get when it ends, I could have watched this flick for another two hours, it was that enjoyable to me. Wish I Was Here is one of my ten favorite films of the year so far. I might wind up on the minority on this one, but frankly, I like the movie way too much to care and know I wasn’t the only one at my press screening doubled over in laughter at times. This is a winner.
Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a 35 year old struggling actor, father, and husband, with the keyword being “struggling”. His wife Sarah (Hudson) is the breadwinner in the family, working a job she hates in order to support her husband’s dream as well as feed her daughter Grace (Joey King) and son Tucker (Pierce Gagnon). Aidan relies on money from his father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) in order to send the kids to an expensive private Hebrew school that Grace loves and Tucker despises, but that money is about to dry up. Gabe has cancer and is cutting off the funding in order to pursue an experimental form of treatment. Aidan hasn’t gotten an acting gig in years, so without the money to pay tuition (after an amusing plea for charity from the head Rabbi), Sarah suggests that Aidan homeschool them. He’s completely against it, but eventually relents, though it doesn’t go well at all at first. Once Aidan stops trying to simulate a classroom and actually tries to teach his kids about life, things get better. At the same time, Gabe is getting worse and progressively dying, leading Aidan to urge his shut in brother Noah (Josh Gad) to make amends with their old man. I’m sure to some of you this just sounds like a generic quirky dramedy that would play in Park City any given year, but trust me, there’s more to it than that. This is about nothing less than examining your life and being an adult.
This is a more mature part in a way for Zach Braff, though Aidan is definitely still a man-child in many ways. Braff’s performance lets you feel the weight of the world slowly crushing him in some ways. It’s a touching bit of acting from an underrated actor. As satisfied as I was by Braff, Kate Hudson just blows everyone out of the water. She hasn’t been this good in a long time and damn near steals the movie. She may not have the bad with the best quips or the juiciest material, but she brings it in a way that makes you want more of her every time she’s not on the screen. The chemistry between Braff and Hudson is strong as well. You really buy them as a married couple. The same goes for Braff and his kids, though Joey King has a more fully formed character than Pierce Gagnon does to me. Mandy Patinkin reminded me a bit of Ian Holm in Garden State, and Patinkin is similarly effective yet under utilized. Josh Gad does his normal thing, but without too much screen time, so he never becomes annoying. Ashley Greene has very little to do in a supporting role opposite Gad in a funny yet slight subplot, and small but enjoyable parts are provided for Braff alums/friends Donald Faison, Jim Parsons, and Michael Weston. The cast also includes the late James Avery in what I believe is his final role, but Braff and Hudson are the leaders of the pack here.
Braff’s sharpened his skills as a filmmaker in the years since Garden State. The movie looks beautiful, with credit going to DP Lawrence Sher for some lovely shot compositions. The script that Braff co-wrote with his brother Adam is witty and gets at some deep questions, but in a subtle enough way that you never really feel like they’re being pretentious. The movie is very serious at times, but it’s also really funny, particularly the opening scenes. I laughed way more than I expected to. The soundtrack is also very catchy, if not quite the instant classic that the last one was for Braff. He’s got an ear for music in movies, and music in general though, no doubt about that. The Shins have a tune that I’d love to see be in play for Best Original Song, but that’s a crapshoot. If there’s one misstep to me in this flick (besides the Gad/Greene subplot, which is fine but nothing special), it’s the fantasy sequences that depict childhood daydreams of being a superhero. Braff looks like a low rent version of Iron Man, and while that’s kind of the point, they don’t add a whole lot to the film, so that’s one thing that he got to keep through utilizing Kickstarter that I think he could have lost with traditional financing and not been a detriment. Many of his specific choices in the flick worked for me, but this one didn’t particularly. I didn’t dislike the sequences, but they just could have been lost. The film would have come in under two hours and been ever so slightly better for it. Honestly, there’s a chance I would have considered four stars for it in that case. Oh well.
That minor qualm of mine aside, Wish I Was Here was a lovely movie that I greatly enjoyed. One hopes that Braff can get a project off the ground more than once every decade or so now (maybe even his remake of Open Hearts that once upon a time was going to be his sophomore feature?). I’d love to see him in contention for a Best Original Screenplay nomination (along with the aforementioned Original Song campaign), but I’m realistic and know that this isn’t for everyone and certainly won’t be particularly up the Academy’s alley. Once again though, it really worked for me. I’ve seen a lot so far this year, but few flicks have I loved in 2014 more than Wish I Was Here. To me, it’s a real must see…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!