Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Zach Braff
Stars: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Josh Gad, Ashley Greene, Jim Parsons, James Avery, Donald Faison, Michael Weston, Alexander Chaplin.
Ten years ago Scrubs star Zach Braff made his mark as a writer and director with the insightful cult favourite Garden State, an assured but quirky comedy which drew upon personal experiences. But it has taken ten years for Braff to produce a follow up film. And despite the critical success of Garden State, which should have given him some clout with producers, this film was largely funded by a kickstarter crowd funding campaign, with some 47,000 fans putting up money to help the project get off the ground.
Wish I Was Here tackles some universal themes like family, parenthood, father-son relationships, mid-life malaise, responsibility, death, religion and spirituality, and this sophomore feature has an insight and depth that suggests that Braff has also matured as both a person and an actor since his television days.
Braff worked with his older brother Adam on writing the script, and Wish I Was Here again draws upon some personal experiences, bringing a poignant and nostalgic quality to this comedy drama about a dysfunctional family that faces a number of challenges and slowly begins to heal.
Braff himself plays Aidan Bloom, a struggling and unemployed actor in Los Angeles. Paid gigs are increasingly hard to come by, and his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) works in a job she hates to bring in enough money to pay the bills and support the family. Aidan is initially something of a selfish and unlikeable character, who is forced to change by the challenges facing his family.
His father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin, from Homeland, etc) has also helped support the family, paying for their two children to attend a Jewish private school. But when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the money dries up, and life becomes harder. Bloom has to withdraw his kids from their expensive school, and he tries to home school them, a role for which he is unsuited as he is essentially making it up as he goes along.
There is a slightly meandering quality to the middle section when Aidan takes his two kids on a road trip, where they begin to bond. There are also some existential and spiritual discussions while they take in the sights. But the film also has a lot of heart and compassion for the disrupted dynamics of the family torn apart by inertia and tragedy. Braff’s direction is for the most part surprisingly unsentimental, mixing dramatic moments with broad comedy, but there are some moments that are deeply affecting. And there are a few moments that seem misjudged and fall flat and a couple of flights of fancy that seem to belong to a different movie altogether.
Braff delivers a solid performance as the largely self-involved Aidan who has to finally confront his failings as both a husband and a father. Braff also elicits one of the better performances from Hudson, who has often found herself lumbered with fairly bland roles in forgettable light weight romantic comedies. But as Aidan’s patient, supportive and long suffering wife Sarah she finds a role she can sink her teeth into and provides the emotional heart of the film. She shares a couple of emotionally moving scenes with Patinkin. This is easily her best work since the gritty The Killer Inside Me.
There are some great individual performances, particularly from Joey King as Bloom’s precocious daughter Grace, and Pierce Gagnon (from Looper, etc) as his unruly younger son Tucker, that enliven the material. Josh Gad (Jobs, etc) is very good as Aidan’s irresponsible and estranged brother Noah, a geeky sci-fi fanatic and loner who lives in his own fantasy world. Patinkin brings warmth and wisdom to his role as Aidan’s gruff and no-nonsense conservative father who struggles to make an emotional connection with his sons. Braff has cast the lesser roles with familiar faces, and Jim Parsons (from The Big Bang Theory, etc), the late James Avery, former Scrubs co-star Donald Faison, and Michael Weston contribute small but effective cameos.
And as with Garden State, the film features a great soundtrack that includes Coldplay, Cat Power and The Shins, which helps to underscore the drama and evoke certain emotional responses from the audience. Wish I Was Here may not have the same impact as Garden State, but it is still a satisfying experience.