Wish I Was Here

Director    Zach Braff
Starring    Zach Braff, Joey King, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Pierce Gagnon, Josh Gad, Ashley Greene, Jim Parsons, Michael Weston
Release    25 JULY (US) 19 SEP (UK)    Certificate 15
3 stars

Ed Williamson

17th September 2014

I worry that I'm getting more intolerant as I age. I like Zach Braff a lot, I find him very funny, and I have no issue with his using Kickstarter to fund Wish I Was Here, as a lot of people seem to. But as per the standard Hollywood template, his film does promote the idea that you should always follow your dreams. Which is fine, except when the right thing to do is give up your dreams, get a job you hate and stay in it till you're 70 to support your family.

I've oversimplified it, in fairness to the bloke. His lead character Aidan Bloom is at a crisis point in his thirties just as Garden State's Andrew Largeman was in his twenties. With two kids, he's an out-of-work actor being supported by his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) and refusing to give up on what, it's clear from the outset, is a vain hope. It'd be a misreading to claim that Braff and his brother/co-writer Adam want your sympathies to lie entirely with Aidan - to their credit, it's much more nuanced than that - but it's still a little hard going.

You can't fault the desire to ask the big questions, though. As far as one can tell from two films ten years apart, Braff is a filmmaker whose work is nakedly autobiographical; he's laying himself bare and it's obvious which bits are taken from his own life. (Casting himself as the lead cements this auteurship even further.) There's risk involved in this, of course, and the occasional slips into a defensive tone when promoting the film indicate an awareness of how vulnerable he's made himself.

Zach Braff, looking defensive in a supermarket. WHAT IS HE HIDING?

When their father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) is diagnosed with cancer there's a flashpoint for Aidan and his brother Noah (Josh Gad), meaning they both have to step up to the plate. ("We're finally called upon to do something that involves some actual bravery": an excellent line that should chime with anyone of a similar age faced with mortality for the first time.) This works very well, and indeed Noah's whole journey from renunciant to grown-up is more interesting, or maybe just more traditional, than Aidan's, though we don't see enough of him to feel satisfied by it. (The hint early on that he was a child genius is left unexplored.) It also means Aidan's two children can no longer attend the private Jewish faith school Gabe's been paying for, whereupon he decides to home-school them both.

This was the bit I didn't fully understand. There was no good reason I could see not to just send them to a public school. I think maybe the idea was that Aidan wanted to reconnect with them both, but they seemed perfectly well connected to begin with. It leads to a series of small-scale epiphany moments throughout the second act: standing on big rocks in the desert at sunset, hands in the air in the back of a convertible, all set to a big uplifting Shins song. Braff's obviously a sentimental guy and that's fine, but these bits ring a little hollow, because they're suggesting a moment of realisation that Aidan and the kids don't much seem to need.

"Adam? Zach here. I've been working out and decided what we really need is a scene where I take my shirt off."

All the while Sarah's working a job she hates, to support what's essentially her husband's whimsical quest for self-actualisation, and she should be angrier about it. The script gives her plenty of agency, though, in convincing Gabe that he's alienating his sons, for example. It could've been a nothing role but Hudson and the Braff 'n' Braff writing team have obviously worked on it plenty.

I don't know, maybe it's me. How much can I expect to enjoy mainstream cinema if I see a guy following his dreams and react by telling him to get a proper job and a haircut? That sort of instinctual reading doesn't really do Wish I Was Here justice: there is more going on than a guy who just needs to pull his socks up. But it also leads you down a few blind alleys and never quite brings you back again.

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