Ten years after Garden State. …
It’s impossible to write about Wish I Was Here without starting with “ten years after Garden State.” Go ahead, try it. The movie doesn’t stand on its own, and there’s really nothing else to effectively compare it to. And that seems to be what Zach Braff was going for. This isn’t a Garden State sequel, or reboot. It feels like a reconfiguration of the same movie. Like Braff is playing emotional indie MadLibs, and Wish I Was Here is what Garden State could have been if you’d just picked different nouns.
Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a 30-something actor who’s dedicated to the craft, but getting sent out (and rejected from) B-level auditions. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) is supportive in theory, but only because he hasn’t asked her in a while. She’s stuck in a meaningless data entry job for the water company, sharing a cubicle with a Tosh wannabe who talks to her in the imagined voice of his anthropomorphized penis. Yet, to the credit of Braff and Hudson, Sarah is not a clichéd nag, standing in the way of her husband’s dreams and self esteem. She’s just a woman who would like to not be the only person to make sacrifices in their marriage. No, the role of unwavering nag is filled by Aidan’s father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), a proud patriarch who has offered to pay for his grandchildren’s schooling as long as it takes place at an Orthodox yeshiva (which one child embraces with a frightening fervor, while the other rejects). But when Gabe’s cancer flares up he pulls the funds necessary for an experimental treatment. So Aidan is left to homeschool the children. And have heart to hearts with his father. And reconnect with his genius/hermit brother (Josh Gad, who offers comedic relief in the form of that inappropriate uncle found in every sitcom since… ever). And support his wife and go on auditions and just, like, figure out life.
The truly maddening thing about Wish I Was Here is that Braff has almost made a good movie. Or at least a decent one. He put some really compelling characters and situations up on that screen. But every single time, Braff steers away, he pulls out, he waves the white flag at the conflict he himself created — whatever metaphor you want to go with, it’s frustratingly apt here. Braff lays out a conflict, a true, sincere problem that almost (or maybe even entirely) gets you to care. Then, just when you’re maybe starting to feel an actual feeling, Braff inserts a clipped platitude or, worse, a montage. Of which there are many. Braff’s go-to move is substituting real resolution with meaningful glances or a ride in a convertible, set to a Shins song, obviously. Or take, for example, the problem of his kids having to leave school. It’s part financial, part pride, part daddy issues, but it’s a real problem. And after one scene of ludicrous home-schooling, Aidan (whose name I keep having to look up because his bland smugness is so inextricably tied to Braff himself that I forget the character even has a different name) substitutes school with “life lessons.” Never mind that his kids will be half a grade behind in math when they return to public school next year — they’re learning to remodel a swimming pool!
Amongst all of this mumbly pointlessness is another element, a stranger one that is hard to discuss because Braff himself didn’t seem to know how to fit it into his own movie. The film opens with a touch of fantasy, of magical realism. Braff’s voiceover narration tells a story (one we will hear twice more over the course of the film, as if repetition can substitute for actual connection) about Aidan and his brother pretending to be superheroes as children, and realizing that maybe they weren’t heroes: maybe they were just regular guys. Before we even meet Aidan, we meet his fantasy version: a spacesuit-clad warrior. Aidan’s son has to pull him out of this fantasy, and it’s jarring for everyone involved. Braff is setting up a schism in his mind, laying out the foundation for a torn reality, or an inability to leave the fantasies aside. But for all that Braff loves an obvious metaphor, he doesn’t seem to know quite how to fit this one in. This fantasy spaceman comes back about once every 40 minutes, realizes he serves no purpose, and leaves. It’s a very odd addition to the movie that has absolutely no place in it and therefore just comes off as meaningless and boring.
But after all that, we must give praise where it is due. (And there really is some, promise!) There was one aspect of this movie that Braff actually hit clear out of the park: the casting. The entire cast of this movie is spectacular. Mandy Patinkin is equally heartbreaking and terrible, the ultimate archetypal witholding patriarch. Josh Gad is obviously perfect for the Comic-Con-attending, furry-f*cking, sad clown comedic relief, but he even manages to underplay the sap in an if not effective, at least not laughable way. Joey King, who plays his preteen daughter (and you’d also recognize as Colin Hanks’ daughter on Fargo), is about ready to explode into the next big teen thing. She is a powerful bundle of sass and tears. (The son is great, too.) Even Kate Hudson seems to be halfway channelling her Penny Lane days, or at least doing a decent impression of her Almost Famous self. Which is a damn sight better than the rom com sh*t she’s been peddling ever since.
In watching this movie, you get the feeling that Braff set out, not to tell a story, but with the grand intentions of making us feel. But he has no idea how to do that. Since Braff is so keen on obvious metaphors, let’s put it this way: He wants to take us on a magical ride on his feelings train, but all he knows how to do is get us on board and press play on an indie mix he threw together. He points out a few emotional landmarks along the way (on your right is a dying father, up ahead are failed dreams), and hopes that at the end we’ll all arrive at the same final cathartic epiphany. But dude forgot to bring a map or fill the tank or something, because when the lights come up and we’re somehow still in the station, it’s clear there was never a chance we were going to reach that destination.
Vivian Kane swears she’s not that cynical. She just prefers it when things don’t completely suck.