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Entries in Wish I Was Here [2014] (1)


Wish I Was Here (2014)

Present and Accounted For

Before we dive into the review of Zach Braff's latest film, Wish I Was Here, can we please dismiss this lame Kickstarter controversy? Last spring, the co-writer/director sought to crowd-fund his movie after years of trying to get it made in Hollywood. The Internet, ever an indignant child, screamed "foul", insisting that the well-off gazillionaire star of Garden State and Scrubs use his own money to fund his own movie. Untold scores of e-activists boycotted Braff and ensured that he'd never see a dime from people who actually work for a living.

Oh, wait. That didn't happen. Wish I Was Here raised an astonishing $2 million dollars in three days, and added another million-plus by the end of its campaign. More than 46,000 fans dug deep to realize a dream project (Braff's and their own). I, for one, am glad they rallied: this is one of my favorite films of the year.

If you listen to the Internet (which, admittedly, has made my critical career possible--never not a source of existential conflict), you'll probably see words like "manipulative", "derivative", and "cheesy to describe the movie. No arguments here, but there's a lot to be said for an artist who can deliver exceptionally well-done schmaltz that targets our gooiest depths and hits the bullseye. I wept on and off for an hour during Wish I Was Here. Walking out of the screening, I had to cut short a conversation with a fellow critic due to puffy eyes, a headful of snot, and shaky syllables that almost sounded like words.

Don't get me wrong: the film is far from a downer. Braff and his brother, Adam, have written one of those smart, funny, touching, and life-affirming pictures that can make the soul rejoice in recognition and understanding--especially for those of us who see it at the right juncture.

I won't get too far into the plot, except to say that Wish I Was Here is like a modern-day, alternate-universe version of The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. In this reality, Zach Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a struggling L.A. actor who must cope with his father's (Mandy Patinkin) resurgent cancer and the prospect of yanking his two young kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) out of Hebrew school. He also has an odd brother (Josh Gad) and a sense that his passions are not aligned with the universe. Oh, and Aidan's wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), supports the household with a crappy data-entry job at which she's sexually harassed daily.*

One key difference between the Coens' comedy and the Braffs' is that Larry Gopnik didn't grow up in the age of Star Wars. His experience of being a frustrated, nearing-middle-age cuckold is made darker by a lack of faith in both the afterlife and the people around him; there's a pointlessness to his world view that makes his attempts at being happy seem both noble and preposterous. Aidan Bloom, on the other hand, has had lifelong fantasies of running around different planets in a futuristic warrior's suit, wielding a giant sword, and accompanied by a cute, beeping sidekick. Both he and his brother are of a generation that believes--to some deep-seated extent--that they're one big break from doing great things in a universe that's waiting to be saved.

This pop illusion rears its head throughout Wish I Was Here--from Noah's epic struggle to visit his estranged, dying father in the hospital; to Aidan's daughter, Grace, donning a Hit Girl wig after a rebellious head-shaving incident; to Aidan's chosen profession: throughout the film, he pounds the pavement looking for acting gigs, and has a cute scene with Jim Parsons concerning how best to sell the motivations of a "red shirt". I'm mixing up my sci-fi fantasy references here, but I hope you get the point.

Another distinction is that the Coens painted women as creatures of desire, temptation and scorn, whose mission in life seemed to be encouraging Larry Gopnik to crawl through his miserable life. On the filp side, we have the Braffs who, through keen misdirection, make women the heroes of their film. Though we're made to empathize with the psychic crises of Aidan, his father, and brother, many of the catalytic moments in Wish I Was Here point directly back to the women in their lives. It's refreshing to see popular entertainment featuring genuine, nurturing, two-way support systems, ones that don't sacrifice either person's dignity. The mother/son and father/daughter relationships here may seem sitcom-thin on the surface, but there is real depth to this love.

This ties in loosely with my only critique of the Braffs' film, which is that the screenplay could have used another going-over--preferably with a copy of Entertainment Weekly sitting next to the laptop. The characters make a lot of dated references, which should only come from Aidan (who likely doesn't have time to keep up on who's hooking up with who to which lip- synched pop single). Unfortunately, everyone speaks as if they're at least five years out of time.** I also winced a tad when the Braffs' Big Themes bled into the dialogue from the plot. Kate Hudson is great and all, but even she can't sell the line, "It will shape who they are as men".

I can look past those things, though, because the Braffs' entire film--from production to writing to performances--comes across as earnest. Some might disagree, letting the baggage of the Kickstarter thing (or perhaps other beefs they have with the director) inform their opinions of his work. Or maybe I'm just too soft and receptive to the message and the delivery system.

Whatever the case, I was absolutely moved by this film, and am (mostly) not ashamed to admit that I think it's great. Is there hypocrisy in that statement? Not really. I rail on movies all the time for being saccharine and full of clichés--but only because I can't stand cheap imitations in a world where the better version is readily available. In the case of Braff's latest, I can confidently point to it and say, "Watch this". Slick, searching, fun, and sweet, Wish I Was Here sliced through my cynicism and, more importantly, provided a solid life lesson about bringing plenty of Kleenex to the movies.

*This portion of the film is (I hope) intentionally unfunny and skin-crawlingly horrifying. The Braffs and actor Michael Weston create a fine monster in Sarah's obnoxious co-worker, Jerry. He's a cypher and a catalyst in his own right, leading to a not-so-convincing climactic moment and possibly an American Beauty-inspired contribution to the film's Happy Ending. The material is ugly, jarring, and belongs elsewhere--but even in its awkwardness, I can't help but marvel at how well it's rendered.

**Though, technically, we're never given a year in which this movie takes place.