I find it really hard to get worked up about Wish I Was Here. Perhaps it’s because I’m not reflecting on life as a 30-something-year-old, like director, writer, star, producer, Zach Braff, or maybe it’s because, despite the best of intentions, the film never reaches the philosophical depths that it seems to want to. It has moments of whimsy and points of greatness, but it feels bloated and more often than not doesn’t amount to as much as one might hope. But it’s also not terrible, and those moments of greatness might just be worth watching.
The film is about Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) attempting to discover himself, all while dealing with, well, a bunch of stuff. His acting career isn’t doing what it should, his father (Mandy Patinkin) is soon going to die, he doesn’t have the money to keep his children (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) in a private, Jewish, school, and his wife (Kate Hudson) might just be getting tired of supporting the family. He also doesn’t really know what he wants to do with his life anymore. Oh, and his brother (Josh Gad) won’t speak to his father, even though, you know, there’s that whole “he’s going to die” thing going on. I can see how he can be pretty stressed out.
So, we follow him on a quest of self-discovery, which involves heartfelt conversations and whimsical scenes, some of which involve a CGI robot and where Aidan lives out his childhood fantasy of being a spaceman exploring the unexplored. Yes, it’s weird. But weirdness and whimsy is why some people like Braff as a filmmaker. Would Garden State had been as successful as it was if it wasn’t that way?
Much of Wish I Was Here recalls Garden State, which Braff also directed and starred in. Many of its best moments are retreads from his earlier work, which was better. That one was probably more relatable, too. The lead character here isn’t particularly endearing. He’s going through a lot, sure, but that’s about all there is to him. Some of the choices Braff makes are absurd or downright stupid. Note how most of the Jews are portrayed in the film. They’re taken to comically (offensively?) over-the-top levels, because Braff has no faith that the audience will “get” it otherwise.
Now seems the right time to mention that Wish I Was Here was funded, at least in part, by fans on Kickstarter. Braff set a goal of $2 million, and go that in something like three days. It wound up getting over $3 million. A studio kicked in the rest of the money, from what I can gather. So, this is what you get. Braff got creative control, and this is what he made. Sometimes it’s a good thing to have someone to say “no” to you.
Granted, I don’t think a studio would have done anything about the comical Jew performances anyway. That’s almost a staple in the cinema; I almost want to say that Braff did it intentionally as satire, except there’s no evidence of that. But someone might have cut the film down and taken out the bloat, of which there is a lot. Or they would have made it more tonally consistent. Or made a B-story involving Aidan’s brother trying to woo his neighbor feel more important (or excise it altogether). Or a bunch of things, really.
I would hope, though, that they wouldn’t remove the good parts of Wish I Was Here. There are enough of those to almost recommend sitting through the two hours that make up the film. Take a scene in which Kate Hudson and Mandy Patinkin have a real heart-to-heart at the hospital. It’s a powerful and poignant scene and … it doesn’t involve Aidan. Actually, most of the film’s best moments don’t involve our lead character. Some of them do, to be sure, but there are just as many that do not — that are made special because of the supporting cast of characters.
It helps that many of the supporting actors turn in great performances. Mandy Patinkin is a scene-stealer as Aidan’s dad. Kate Hudson is better than she’s been in more than a decade. Josh Gad makes a small roll interesting and funny. Joey King is a better child actor than most. Pierce Gagnon is … forgettable, to be perfectly honest, but at least he didn’t ruin the film or anything. And Ashley Greene and Jim Parsons both have really small roles; Greene plays Gad’s love interest, while Parsons plays an actor, which is much the same role he played in Garden State, just expanded a bit.
Here’s what probably needs to happen: Braff needs to crank out more than one film every decade. He got lucky with Garden State, and now, in his sophomore outing, some of the cracks are showing through. If he were to make a film every 2-3 years, he’d be able to iron out the issues and figure out exactly what works and what should probably be cut out. Practice makes perfect, after all.
Wish I Was Here is ambitious, quirky, weird, overlong, tonally inconsistent, and overlong. Is it worth seeing? Maybe, if you’re a fan of Zach Braff or thing the premise of a thirtysomething man finding himself is intriguing. I wouldn’t say not to watch it, I suppose. It has problems, some of which come from Braff having full creative control (I assume), but it’s not bad and there are some truly great moments hidden within it. If you’re up for it, I suggest giving Wish I Was Here a chance.