You know when a movie is so heartfelt, so sentimental, so absolutely saturated with feeling that you can’t help but think it’s just too much? Wish I Was Here is just that type of film, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, like how eating a pizza and a half is awesome until you’re nauseous and throwing up your spleen. There is dialectic in this film, as every element is also its inverse. It’s as innovative as it is trite, as touching as it is loathsome, as powerful as it is absolutely weak.
Just like the far superior Garden State, Wish I Was Here is the brain child of Zach Braff, but one can’t help but feel he is still stuck in the former, clawing for that indie cred. From the Shins centric soundtrack to the infamous Kickstarter campaign used to fund the film, it is hard not to wonder what the line is between true artistic choice and manufactured hipsterdom.
Again, all of this not quite a knock on the film, yet the compulsion to disseminate is a specter that looms over the whole of the film, making unadulterated watching difficult. There are great things to be found, however. There is not a single weak performance throughout, each delicate and measured. I would like to mention first the outstanding child actors, Pierce Gagnon and Joey King. Both play Braff’s children, Tucker and Grace, who are enrolled in a private Jewish school and must be taken out. Gagnon, known for his role as a young future-murderer in Looper, loathed the school anyway, is often played for comic relief, but is given some touching lines we can all imagine a child saying. King is a marvel as the conflicted Grace, who at once loves the private school but also is trying to come into her own as an adult. Both are believable and are real actors, and never take anything away from the film.
The legendary Mandy Patinkin puts in some of his most dynamic, textured work of his long career. He had to, too, in his role of Saul Bloom, the ailing father of Braff’s Aidan and Josh Gad’s Noah. Saul is an educated, deeply spiritual man who can’t help but have high hopes for his children, and that rare character that is just as much a plot device as a plot mover. When Patinkin is on screen he has to play to the characterization his sons make for him throughout the rest of the film in a way that still allows his humanity shine through, which he does deftly.
Kate Hudson’s work is also brilliant; perhaps even her best, up there with 2000’s Almost Famous. As Braff’s wife, she has the complex task of playing the straight-woman to his whimsical, starry-eyed Aidan, but also showing just why these two are together. Her parts are some of the most powerful. For instance, in one early scene we are shown her toiling away at work while enduring sophomoric and sexually offensive banter from a boorish coworker, just to be told to lighten up by her boss. She does not turn into some damsel in distress who needs a man to come to her rescue, which is just as much a testament to the writing as her acting. It is no surprise, though, that the scenes with her and Patinkin are absolutely electric, and, to me, make up the earnest heart of this film. They don’t quite see eye to eye, and that is all I will say as they are just too good to spoil.
Josh Gad is underutilized as he is in most films. I don’t know what to say, honestly; he is Josh Gad and he can do anything. His Noah is a tough character to pinpoint, as he very much so lies on the periphery of the narrative. He moves something s here and there, and I cannot help but feel the whole package would be better with a touch more of Gad.
Braff, as in Garden State, is probably the weakest link. He still does well with the richly written Aidan, but there is just something missing. Maybe it is the toll that being co-writer, director, producer, and protagonist takes, but it is clear that he isn’t on all cylinders. It could be the subject matter, too. Co-written with his brother, Adam, Braff tackles the tough subject of a parent’s death, very much so taken from recent events in his life. Sure, from the outside we can say “Well then he has plenty inspiration to work of off”, but in truth, one can’t really replicate the true anguish that loss creates. Moreover, it isn’t a stretch to think it’s too painful to do.
There isn’t much, besides a few gorgeous shots, worth noting besides the performances. This is a graduate-level exploration of characters, but the script is junior college and it shows. The actors’ work shines in spite of all the rest, not because of it. It’s stifling, cumbersome, and often frustrating as a viewer. Throughout, I wanted the film to be just a little less self aware.
Wish I Was Here is a good film, just tired. It goes nowhere new, says nothing new. There is that old saying that “there’s nothing new under the Sun”, But it doesn’t feel like Braff even looks. It is difficult to say that a labor of love such as this falls flat, but hitting all the marks does not a good film make. A movie made by checklist will always be mediocre, or worse.