Turn back the clocks. It’s May 2013 and Zach Braff is ‘kickstarting’ his latest cinematic endeavour. He says it is a sequel of the “tone” of Garden State. Regarding funding, “this could be a new paradigm for filmmakers who want to make smaller, personal films without having to sign away any of their artistic freedom”. The film will be “the truest representation of what I have in my brain”, as after donating he will have “final cut”, and the film will be made with “no compromises”. Everything he promises – a brother at Comic-con, Jim Parsons – all appear in Wish I Was Here. But it doesn’t reach the lofty heights Braff promises, despite his sincerest intentions.
Braff is Aiden Bloom, father to two adorable children (played by Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) and husband to a gorgeous woman (Kate Hudson). He is an aspiring actor while his wife is the breadwinner. Their two children, one a little rascal and the other a studious role-model, attend a private Jewish school funded by Aiden’s father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin). But Gabe reveals that he’s dying of cancer. After trying everything, Gabe intends to undergo treatment that is in its experimental phase. Aiden’s brother, Noah (Josh Gad) has to reconnect with him before he passes and Aiden has to figure out how to home-school his children as his father inches closer to death.
It’s clear that it’s partly based on Braff’s own experiences. Though he has no children, he and his brothers (author Joshua and co-scriptwriter Adam) are involved in the arts, and were all raised in a Jewish family. Though Wish I Was Here does manage to elicit a positive response, it is more akin to Jewish-family comedy This Is Where I Leave You, starring Jason Bateman, opposed to an uncompromising portrayal of adulthood. Interestingly, both films centre on a dying father and how this loss brings the family together. This Is Where I Leave You begins as the family sit Shiva, while patriarch Gabe says he is “a Shiva waiting to happen” in Wish I Was Here.
Taken on its own terms, Wish I Was Here does manage to include a few smart gags and brief moments of heartfelt honesty. His daughter, Grace, has an intelligent, rebellious charm. Her decision to shave her head, after flippant fatherly advice, is with the best intention but reveals an unattractive quality in her Dad, rather than in her own appearance. The constant cheeky adjustment of words to suit the children can’t help but force a grin as you are told how ‘poontang’ is a space drink and how ‘the oldest profession’ is that of an angel. Braff doesn’t shy-away from some challenging final moments in the closing act but it’s not consistent. In fact, he jarringly counterbalances a heart-breaking phone-call between family members with rampant, sci-fi costumed sex. It may fit the comedy-drama mould effectively, but “artistically free” films would surely aim for a higher bar of truth.
And a less-glossy truth is what‘s missing. Knowing the nature of audiences and the inevitable requirement for, ultimately, his money back, Braff has turned his ‘final cut’ film into a by-the-book indie dramedy. Bob Dylan and acoustic music on the soundtrack? Check. Slow-mo montages with narration? Check. A subplot on sexual harassment that’s used cheaply as ‘exposition’, opposed to acknowledging the larger issue of sexism? Check (though I don’t believe that is an indie requirement). Happiness is about risk-taking, and ironically I Wish I Was Here takes very few risks, undermining the ‘personal’ film Braff intended to make. It’s an acceptable, twee family drama – but sadly, nothing more.
Originally written for Flickering Myth on 26th January 2015