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Wish I Was Here | Review

Anywhere But Here: Braff’s Kickstarter Baby a Painstaking Smog of Forced Emotion

Wish I Was Here Zach Braff PosterIt’s hard to believe a decade has passed since actor Zach Braff’s directorial debut, Garden State, was sold for a pleasant sum at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to reach a certain amount of acclaim, generating one of the first millennial iterations of the manic pixie dream girl with the prototype performance from Natalie Portman. The indie landscape has shifted a bit, and Braff’s return to the director’s seat with Wish I Was Here arrives like an interesting litmus test.

His debut hasn’t aged as well as we might have predicted due to the countless amount of similarly conceived films since then, though one must admit there’s a certain amount of nostalgic charm wrapped up in its well-meaning intentions. Comparatively, Braff’s unstudied earnestness to a fault irreparably damages any chances the film has at being as warmly regarded, at least not by adults unfazed by cheap and obvious manipulations. A series of instances in one family’s coming to grips with the death of a patriarch, Braff’s sophomore effort arrives with a thud, another cog in the new American independent film machine, where it’s degree of visibility makes it not quite indie (perhaps it’s best to leave any of your kickstarter funded criticisms at the door) and not quite mainstream, somewhere in the milquetoast middle calibrated to make the emotionally inclined cry some alligator tears before returning to the complicated bustle of their own lives.

A struggling, out of work actor, Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) lives in Los Angeles with his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) and their two kids, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon). Sarah supports the family with her job in the State Water Department, though it seems she’s coming to the end of her patience with Aidan’s inability to land a paying gig. Aidan’s father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), is a devout member of the Jewish faith, and pays for his grandchildren to attend a private religious school, even though neither Aidan nor Sarah practice the religion. However, Gabe hasn’t paid the tuition recently, leading Aidan to discover that his father’s cancer has returned. Thus, his father is paying for expensive, non-traditional treatments and can no longer afford to pay the tuition. This places Aidan and Sarah in a tailspin. Terrified of sending their children to public school, Aidan tries to homeschool the kids himself. But Gabe’s condition gets much worse, leading to his hospitalization, whereby he charges Aidan with a mission to wrangle up his younger, estranged brother, Noah (Josh Gad) for a reconciliation.

The casting couldn’t be more telling about Braff’s target audience, and your gut response to the realization that Kate Hudson stars as his wife should be a good indication of your attraction to Wish I Was Here. To be fair, Hudson actually nails the only emotionally honest scene in the film, visiting her cancer stricken father-in-law on her own, played by a cantankerous Mandy Patinkin, to urge him to make amends with his two sons before it’s too late. It’s quietly effective, emotionally compelling, and has the type of organic ring to it that the rest of the film lacks completely.

Braff, here playing a struggling actor, is really only sewing together a series of quirky events that are meant to convey the converse wonders and ills of making the most of your time. It’s rather basic message, proclaiming that family should come first and the pursuit of one’s happiness should not come solely at their expense, is muddled into a bunch of ridiculous hooey.

The children are used as plot contrivances, either for teary interludes or cheap laughs, including Joey King’s Grace, whose silly meltdown leads to a Britney Spear’s inspired haircut, forever after relegated to wearing an eyesore of a purple, apparently multipurpose wig. Braff’s insistence on carrying a huge glass “Swear Jar” around (which breaks in one scene, edited in such a way that looks as if they leave the broken glass and the money behind) is also aggravating, one of a series of details that makes Wish I Was Here too cute for its own good. A scene featuring Braff’s “Scrubs” buddy Donald Faison feels equally masturbatory and should have been excised completely. And don’t forget the lazy handling of the subplot featuring the estranged brother, played by Josh Gad, which includes an unlikely sex scene with Twilight’s Ashley Greene, and should induce groans of incredulity in those prone to weary cynicism.

Trying to borrow from the fantastical flights of fancy utilized in Garden State, we get snippets of his private fantasy world, sort of a Jewish Star Wars mash-up, though this also feels like an onerous overreach. It’s hard to take the more heartfelt elements of Wish I Was Here very seriously due to all the other silliness and narrative convenience, though even without that, it’s hard to overlook the unquestioned privilege on display here, relegating most of their messy issues as banal ‘first world’ (or, ah hell, white people) problems. For those of you who are disdainful of neatly wrapped boxes with cozy, unquestionably sappy resolutions, Wish I Was Here will try your patience.

★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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