Wish I Was Here (Focus Features, R)

film wish-i-was-here_smThere are still glimmers of talent as a writer-director here, but they’re much fewer and further between than they were in Garden State.




film wish-i-was-here

If you’ve heard of Wish I Was Here, you probably know at least two things about it: (1) it’s writer-director-star Zach Braff’s first effort as a hyphenate since 2004’s Garden State, and (2) it was partially funded with a controversial Kickstarter campaign. For the latter, Braff was widely criticized for asking his fans for money, when it seems a safe assumption that he has exponentially more money than the vast majority of his fans do. (I don’t mean to imply I entirely agree with the overall logic of this argument, but the point here is that it was a bit of a PR headache.) Now we have the film Wish I Was Here in its completion and can judge it fairly and semi-objectively on its own merits, and with no further debate of its right to exist.

But there are some problems here. One is that, while I liked Garden State upon its initial release (it was even on my Top Ten Films of 2004 list), it hasn’t aged well, and most of the reason why is Braff himself. He shows some promise as a director and as a writer, but his screen presence is annoying, and he veers toward broad, Cameron Crowe–worthy feel-goodery, which doesn’t always work the way he intended. Second is that the script for Wish I Was Here sometimes has what seems to be direct commentary on the Kickstarter controversy, what with references to Braff’s character Aidan asking for charity, off-handed comments about how it’s weird that he needs it because “the Jews own Hollywood,” etc., so it never really lets you forget the film’s tumultuous production. It is unknown to me if these seeming references to the film’s crowdfunding were written before or after that whole thing took place, but one has to assume they were written before, and are thereby unfortunate and unintentional.

Also, the movie’s pretty bad, so it invites people to feel sorry for those who did put their hard-earned dollars into Braff’s Kickstarter campaign. It’s quite a lot like Garden State, but worse, and that’s no good given how I was just discussing that Garden State hasn’t aged well. Here, Braff’s Aidan is a struggling actor (sound familiar?), but now he has a wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson, whom I usually dislike, but whose character here is easily the best in the film), and two kids, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon). He also has a dying father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), and unpleasant brother Noah (Josh Gad, whom I only ever seem to be able to tolerate when he’s in a singing role, which he isn’t here). But mostly this film is about Aidan, and how life is really hard for him.

One puzzling thing about this film is how many recognizable actors are relegated to small, thankless roles. Jim Parsons turns up as acting competition to Aidan, and in the crowd I saw the film with he got a laugh on sight. Did everyone forget that Parsons was also in Garden State, in an equally small but much more memorable role than this one, years before he broke in The Big Bang Theory? Meanwhile, Twilight’s Ashley Greene turns up just long enough to have sex with Noah, during which Noah answers a phone call from Aidan, because, yes, it is the type of film where an ugly man having sex with a beautiful girl for the first time will for no reason answer the phone during the act. It’s also the type of film to alternate Grace’s character between exceptionally smart and exceptionally naïve, depending on what the plot needs at that time, and with no attention paid to believability.

The bottom line for why it doesn’t work, though, is Braff himself. There are still glimmers of talent as a writer-director here, but they’re much fewer and further between than they were in Garden State, and his screen presence continues to grate, as does this film on the whole. | Pete Timmermann

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