Ten years ago Zack Braff wrote, directed, and starred in a little film called Garden State. Over the next decade the actor continued to work in front of the camera but other than directing a few episodes of Scrubs left the work behind the camera to others. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign, Braff returns to the big screen with Wish I Was Here which features many of the same quirks of his Garden State while focusing on sensibilities that have evolved over time.
Despite having a similar slice-of-life take on a character not too far removed from his own (here Braff stars as a struggling actor with an overworked wife and demanding children), Wish I Was Here is far less effective than Garden State. Co-written by Braff’s brother Adam, the new feature provides some great individual moments (including reminding us that Kate Hudson can act when called upon to do something more than braindead romcoms), but fails in becoming more than the sum of its parts by offering an overly simplistic ending to a messy (and increasingly cliched) life seemingly freed of all troubles in under two-hours.
That’s not to say Wish I Was Here isn’t worth seeing. The performances of Braff, Hudson, and Joey King (as the pair’s daughter Grace) carry the film even through its rougher patches. I also appreciated the fact that the film allowed Mandy Patinkin (playing the the dying patriarch of the family) to continue to struggle with his own gruff nature and opinions even as his family tried their best to be there for him at the end of his life. Hudson and Patinkin share one of the film’s best scenes in a hospital room in a frank discussion about family and mortality that shows us why these are the two strongest pillars of this family. In a similar vein, the other scene that stood out for me was a simple discussion between Braff and Hudson about happiness, responsibility, and the choices that come with marriage and family.
Although the subplot involving Josh Gad, who is cast as Braff’s eccentric brother Noah, has some nice moments there’s quite a bit of untapped potential in Noah’s backstory and development which isn’t given the time or space to develop (other than a weird tie-in to San Diego Comic-Con) as the movie is far more centered on Braff’s character Aidan and his family. The sci-fi elements of the movie which make up Aidan’s waking dreams are interesting, but like much of the film they aren’t as well incorporated into the storyline as I’d like other than some clunky dialogue about the boys pretending to be spacemen as children (although from the looks of things they’re eating up a hefty portion of the indie film’s budget).
The various supporting characters are more memorable for the actors portraying them (Ashley Greene, Jim Parsons, Michael Weston, Donald Faison) than the characters themselves. Of the group Greene is mostly wasted in Gad’s black hole of a subplot while Parsons (as a fellow struggling actor) and Weston (as Hudson’s obnoxious co-worker) are given larger roles that end in much the way you’d expect as little more than pieces of Aidan’s individual growth.
Wish I Was Here isn’t a bad film, but given Braff’s total control of the project it feels lacking in several areas the most glaring of which is that he hasn’t improved as a filmmaker over the past decade. Sure the story is more geared to late 30-something than 20-something this time around, but while he’s able to illicit strong performances out of the cast he’s assembled Braff struggles in presenting a compelling story with much to say about this stage of his life other than typical family struggles that alternate randomly between humorous and completely forgettable. Like Kevin Smith, perhaps the best of Braff (at least behind the camera) is at least 10 years behind him.