[This is a re-post of my Wish I Was Here review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The film opens in limited release this weekend.]
It’s been ten long years since Zach Braff directed a feature film. Those that fell hard for Garden State—myself included—looked forward to seeing another directorial effort from Braff, and now the time has finally come with Wish I Was Here. Written by Braff and his brother Adam Braff, the story explores late-blooming maturity through the eyes of a struggling actor living in L.A. with his wife and two children. Braff weaves in plenty of themes about loss, marriage, and parenthood throughout the film, but he throws so much into the pot that not all of it sticks. The result is a disappointing mixed bag, with some of the film hitting just the right note while the rest of it falls completely flat. Read my full review after the jump.
Aidan Bloom and his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) live in Los Angeles with their two children, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon). Sarah is the breadwinner of the family with a menial job at the water company, while Aidan struggles to pursue his dream of acting by going to audition after audition. Aidan is heavily influenced by his father, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), who is very conservative in his Jewish faith, and agrees to pay the tuition for Grace and Tucker as long as they attend a prestigious Hebrew school.
Aidan’s life is thrown a curveball when Saul informs him that his cancer has returned at an aggressively metastasizing state. In addition to being faced with his father’s impending death, Aidan must now find an alternative means of schooling his children because Saul decides to use the last of his savings on a New Age treatment as one final shot at curing the cancer. Reluctantly, and at the suggestion of his wife, Aidan decides to homeschool Grace and Tucker. This proves to be a challenge as Aidan is too self-involved to really focus on teaching his own kids. Moreover, Grace is so smart that she ends up taking over the first lesson entirely, while the rambunctious and slightly offbeat Tucker wreaks havoc on Aidan’s lesson plans.
The movie unfolds in a series of scenes that sometimes feel like they were randomly arranged. In some sequences, Braff touches on sweet emotional moments that showcase a more restrained directorial touch. In others, things go so far off the rails that the audience is taken completely out of the film. Aidan frequently delivers Profound-with-a-capital-P statements that are meant to be earnest, but end up coming off as smug or self-serious. Additionally, Aidan’s brother Noah (Josh Gad)—who is characterized as a hermit-like geek who has serious issues concerning his father—has a subplot involving a potential romance with his Comic-Con-loving neighbor Janine (Ashley Greene) that is so goofy and broad that it feels like it’s from an entirely different film. There are also a number of fantasy sequences scattered throughout that attempt to visualize Aidan’s inner struggles, but they never really connect with the rest of the film so they end up feeling out of place.
Though there are more than a few portions of the film that don’t entirely work, Braff also nails plenty of comedic beats and mostly pulls off the intimate father-son struggle between Aidan, Saul, and Noah. It’s a curious dichotomy, as I found myself really digging the film in one scene, and nearly loathing it in the next. As for Braff’s behind the camera talents, his directorial eye is mostly on point. The film shows a visual maturation from Garden State, though he does indulge a bit too long on some sequences in order to further showcase the film’s excellent soundtrack.
The movie’s secret weapon, though, is Kate Hudson. This is easily Hudson’s best performance since Almost Famous, and the script paints Sarah as a strong, independent partner instead of a wife who is entirely submissive to her husband’s dream-filled lifestyle. There’s a scene in the middle of the film between Hudson and Patinkin that hits every emotional beat just right, which makes it all the more frustrating that the rest of the movie isn’t as consistent.
Growing up is hard, and becoming a parent and raising children doesn’t automatically make you an adult. Wish I Was Here takes this conceit and explores whether maturity means having to give up on your dreams entirely. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s muddled in the execution as Braff simply tries to reach for too much, resulting in a frustrating lack of cohesiveness.