There have been lots of words bandied about in critics’ circles following screenings of Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here. Here’s a smattering of the choicest cuts I’ve overheard:
“Twee.” “Dickish.” “Navel-gazing.” “Dull.” “Awash in its own ass juice” (I don’t know what that means, but it made me laugh). “An exercise in indulgence.” “A movie only a mother could love.” “Shitty title.” “Trash.”
To one degree or another, all those criticisms are true. (Especially the shitty title.) But, to paraphrase Piers Anthony, Wish I Was Here is my kind of trash, and I found parts of it incredibly affecting, even though I wonder whether Braff knows what a past subjunctive is (eh, he probably does).
And because Wish I Was Here is my kind of trash, I admit it may, in reality, be a total piece of shit. I wouldn’t know that, of course, as I was caught up in its smarmy splendor.
Note, I don’t hold out hope that Wish I Was Here will have legs. I watched Garden State (for maybe the third time ever) about a week before I saw Wish I Was Here. When it was over, I thought, “Why the FUCK did I ever think this was a good movie?”
Garden Sate is so cute and precious and—yes—twee. Its soundtrack is vacuous, save for Colin Hay’s “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.” Its writing is one-note and its performances are skin-deep (especially Natalie Portman’s, but perhaps that can be blamed on Braff the screenwriter/director, who makes her character announce outright that she’s weird).
So what is it that makes Wish I Was Here tolerable, sometimes even worth a laugh or a tear? Mandy Patinkin, for one, who plays Braff’s father. He’s in perfect asshole mode. Something about watching a song-and-dance man play a total prick is invigorating. He does more acting acrobatics in a hospital bed in this movie than he does wielding a sword in The Princess Bride.
Then there’s Kate Hudson, one of the least likable actors of her generation, doing some genuine acting and being good at it. She plays Braff’s put upon wife who’s out earning the dough while he chases his dream of being an actor. She and Patinkin have the single best scene in the movie, and though the writing—Hudson encourages the dying Patinkin to make nice with his sons—borders on cliché, Hudson pulls it off in a way that makes you think, “Hey, a guy with an incurable illness might actually be moved by this stuff.”
It’s too bad the heart of the story in Wish I Was Here is so familiar—Braff’s character, Aidan, is the struggling actor who learns to live and be responsible as his father dies—because the film could have been something more than a footnote in the great Kickstarter debate. There’s a decent cast, including Josh Gad as Aidan’s emotionally at-sea brother, Noah, and Alexander Chaplin as a good-humored rabbi who speaks the language of the agnostic Jew.
Plus, Braff the actor is up to the challenge. That stare-into-space-and-talk-flatly thing he did whenever he had to break up with Elliot or tell a patient he or she was dying on Scrubs is gone, replaced with something that seems more confident and adult, almost as if he’s willing himself to make new and different acting choices.
As for the story (remember, it’s for the birds—cliché alert!): Struggling thirtysomethings with youngish kids face mortality and life challenges when the family patriarch (and family checkbook) learns he’s dying. After some humorous shenanigans with the kids, the main character and his brother learn something, and the husband and wife learn to love each other the way they used to.
Snore. Patinkin’s gravitas (aided by an enormous beard) goes a long way in making Wish I Was Here watchable, and when he’s not on screen, the movie sort of dries up. For all Braff’s improvements as an actor, the moments when he has to carry things without an adult present—the scenes when he’s home schooling his kids because grandpa’s illness means he can no longer pay for the kids’ private school—are tougher, because it doesn’t seem like these kids are really his. Whether that’s a function of the limitations of his performance, the screenplay, his direction or some combination of all three is a mystery, but it doesn’t bode well that the mystery is sometimes more engaging than his acting.
But in the end, it’s innocuous. And if the crowd that funded this film via Kickstarter is happy, that’s probably what matters. It’s much better than Third Person. Be happy about that.
Wish I Was Here (R)
Dir. Zach Braff; writ. Adam J. and Zach Braff; feat. Zach Braff, Mandy Patinkin, Kate Hudson, Josh Gad, Ashley Greene, Alexander Chaplin
★★1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Opens Fri, July 18 at Santikos Bijou