Wish I Was Here
2014, R, 106 min. Directed by Zach Braff. Starring Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Jim Parsons, Ashley Greene, Michael Weston.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 25, 2014
I’m not one of Garden State’s belated haters. Zach Braff’s of-the-moment picture of generational anomie and mid-Aughties, mass-appeal indie film mores was pretty on point. But a decade’s gone by now, and things change. Has Zach Braff?
Much as his directorial debut took the temperature of a certain kind of twentysomething circa 2004, Wish I Was Here clearly wants to impart something just as thumping about what late-30s life is like, troubled by unruly kids, ailing parents, and creative aspirations complicated by financial realities. Braff has an ever-clever eye for observational humor, but too often the script (written by Braff with his brother Adam) feels reverse-engineered to manufacture would-be iconic imagery. Every conversation comes trick-loaded, so that when surfing, a swear jar, and a sheitel are name-checked, it’s preordained each concept will conclude in a slo-mo, trailer-made shot scored to an obsessively pruned Spotify playlist. That swear jar, improbably lugged around in public places and primed for the shattering, grates the most; it’s Chekhov’s gun maxim retooled for maximum twee effect. And while we’re talking verisimilitude: Those of us without children, or who are at least ill at ease with real kid talk, are apt to resort to a special voice – uncertain, schoolmarmish, inflecting upward into a question mark, like we’re nervously trying to educate a short-tempered dog that might lunge at any second – and Braff uses that exact voice with his screen kids. Of the ongoing fantasy motif/metaphor that puts Braff in a spacesuit with an alien/robot sidekick hovering at his shoulder: I can’t find the words for the wince. It’s the worst.
Still, Wish I Was Here has its moments of transcendence. They don’t involve Braff, who starts the film as an unshaved sarcophagus of bile and glibness – a brittle act he swiftly drops in favor of a too-cuddly portrait of waywardness. But as a writer/director, he’s cherry-picked the best of his ensemble cast to chew over the topic of religion – the young actress Joey King, who plays his observant daughter, and Mandy Patinkin, as his cancer-riddled, Orthodox Jewish dad. A theatre-trained actor with enough film smarts to know you don’t always have to project to the rafters, Patinkin owns the movie with a sotto voce bedside chat with Kate Hudson (as Aidan’s pacific-grin wife) that is beautifully performed – a scene that’s especially effective for its restrained camerawork. Patinkin and King’s characters’ wrangling with spirituality is sincere, and specific. Everything else in this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink film feels like too many ideas stored up over an especially long winter.