Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: Wish I Was Here

by Adam Riske
Blame it on the vanity.

Zach Braff (aka Captain Emo) is a talented guy. It’s just that he’s a better director than he is an actor and a better actor than he is a writer. His latest effort Wish I Was Here (the long-awaited follow-up to Garden State) is the type of movie where its imperfections are obvious as you are watching it. Imperfections realized after the fact can be more easily forgiven. His new movie left me feeling irritated. It’s obvious Braff thinks he’s a deep man, but must he use his movies to remind us of that?

My expectations were guardedly optimistic. I enjoyed Garden State, but it’s a movie that bugs me about as much as any movie that I like. For every choice that truly works (the casting of Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard, the soundtrack etc.), there are many that feel forced and inauthentic. But in Garden State, the good outweighs the bad. Wish I Was Here has more going against it than for it. It’s a lazy movie, a bit of a stupid movie and it feels like a vanity project.

Let’s face it. Garden State and Wish I Was Here are essentially the same movie set 10 years apart. You can seem introspective and get away with this type of material in your twenties, but to do the same thing in your thirties feels a little, well, pitiable. You don’t have to have everything figured out by your mid-to-late thirties (or ever), but these times of grand personal epiphanies should probably be best kept to yourself at this point, right? That’s the problem with Braff. He thinks personal a-ha moments are universal truths and they’re not. Wish I Was Here does all the philosophizing for you and what it comes up with is tacky.
The plot in brief: Aiden (Zach Braff) and his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) are thirty-something parents of two children, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon). Aiden is an out of work actor, still pining to live out his dreams well past their expiration date and refusing to take financial responsibility for his family. Sarah is the bread winner of the house and Aiden’s father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) is paying to send Grace and Tucker to a private Jewish school. When Gabe’s cancer reappears, he can no longer pay their tuition, which sends Aiden in crisis financially and spiritually as he’s required to step up for his family like he never has had to before. The movie also stars Josh Gad as Aiden’s lazy and frustrating brother, a role in which Gad has now become typecast.

Let’s go back to Braff, because unfortunately with him reviewing the movie and reviewing the person go hand-in-hand. This dude is SO SELF-INDULGENT. I don’t understand why he chooses to play such unlikable characters and not deviate more so as not to confuse his performance with his own persona. He feels hermetically sealed. For example, there is a scene in which Aiden is delivering a eulogy and uses the opportunity to talk about himself and not the deceased before the scene cuts away. Why would Braff do that? At best, it makes his character unlikable or seem as if he learned nothing; at worst, it makes Braff the actor seem desperately out of touch with how he’s coming across on screen.

I’ll give Braff credit for being a brave filmmaker. At least he’s unapologetically laying it all out there. He’s trying to make great art. If Wish I Was Here didn’t feel so self-satisfied, I would say it’s sincere, even spiritual, questioning some of the ideologies of Judaism. Braff nails it in one scene where Aiden is talking about faith to a Rabbi, who points out that perhaps Aiden has faith only in a way that makes sense to himself. It’s a nicely written and acted scene and the best in the movie. The scene also has true to life dialogue that feels fresh and authentic, such as when Aiden tells the Rabbi that he kept kosher until he had his Bar Mitzvah and parlayed his new manhood into telling his father that he wanted to eat cheeseburgers. This actually happened; it’s one of Braff’s personal quotes on his IMDB page. The rest of the movie tries to be as deeply felt but it’s as if Braff doesn’t know how to make it identifiable to an audience. It comes across as mostly new age DIY spiritual nonsense.
The dialogue rings false for much of the rest of the movie. At one point, Aiden takes his children to the desert and tells them they are at the spot where he had “one of the deepest, most spiritual moments” of his life. Barf. Or when he tells his brother (who is wearing a Comic-Con costume, complete with a fishbowl on his head) “You know what the problem is with hiding in a fishbowl, Noah? Everyone can see you.” Ugh! The real doozy is a completely gross scene where Aiden explains to his kids that his father kept a jar of every contact lens he ever wore since “he couldn’t bear to throw them out because it was everything he ever saw.” YIKES!!

Zach Braff should stop writing his own movies. His scripts are not subtle. They would rather make grand statements and speechify than make the same point with economical dialogue. Much of that could be forgiven if the story and the characters were more interesting. Rocky Balboa is an example of that. But in Wish I Was Here, it’s all mopey, cloying and boring.

Wish I Was Here also tries desperately to recapture the quirky charm of Garden State, but its attempts fall flat. The great touch in Garden State with the diplomas spilling over the wall in the Braff character’s doctor’s office has been replaced with dumb things such as a Rabbi on a Segway crashing into walls. This is just one example of how tone deaf the movie is as a comedy. There are many more examples, including how Tucker walks around everywhere with a power drill for an unexplained reason or how Aiden carries the money from a swear jar around like other people might carry a money clip. The worst is a bizarre detour (probably to give Kate Hudson’s underwritten part something to do) where Sarah is being sexually harassed at the office by a co-worker (Michael Weston, also of Garden State) and her bosses have a reaction to that which would never happen in real life if anyone wanted to keep their jobs. The movie is never funny when it tries to be because Braff is playing it stupid, not respecting his audience’s intelligence.

The performances vary from quite good to problematic. I’ve talked enough about Braff already and Gad has an impossibly written character, but Kate Hudson, Joey King and Mandy Patinkin all have some good moments. They are in scenes where they are actually allowed to act and emote and not at the mercy of the quirk of the script, which is why they come off best. The Hudson character is the most interesting because she seems almost a reaction against the “manic pixie dreamgirl” that Natalie Portman was in Garden State. Sarah is practical, responsible and real. If anything, Braff is the manic pixie dreamgirl here. Too bad he can’t inspire himself to be a better man comparable the way Portman did for his character in Garden State.
I think that’s what it comes down to with Wish I Was Here: are you a fan of Zach Braff or not? You don’t have fine actors like Natalie Portman or Peter Sarsgaard to fall back on this time. My feelings about Braff are complicated. I’m at the point where I feel guilty for not liking him, similar to M. Night Shyamalan. He just gets picked on so much I feel bad for him.

Wish I Was Here is sincere and well-intentioned. It’s also not very good. I think this movie is much more interesting to Zach Braff than his audience. It could have been a good movie if it weren’t so damn impressed with itself. Why does this character have his own movie? Why are we following his journey? The solutions are given to him more than he seeks them out or earns them. He's not trying to find his strength as much as complain that he doesn’t get what he wants. I don’t understand this guy. I don’t want to spend time with him.

The tagline of Wish I Was Here is 'Life is an occasion. Rise to it.' Those seven words exemplify most of the movie’s problems. Why not simply say 'Rise to the occasion?'


  1. No one cares about Zach Braff. Got it.

  2. Heh. The only comment I had was, "You're telling me that contact lens speech is actually IN the movie? Yeesh."

    1. They show a damn jar of contact lenses and the kid asks if they're jellyfish. It's disgusting.

  3. Adam, this is a wonderful review for a movie I never intend to see. Zach Braff has always come across (to me) as a straight up hipster douche that I want nothing to do with.

    Any moment I ever saw of him in Scrubs made me think, "This idiot thinks he's better than the material and is slumming it". He appeared to be biding his time until he made his first movie.

    When that didn't exactly take off for him, one could tell on later seasons of Scrubs that he was more pissed than ever to be stuck.

    I'm glad he was able to (finally) raise his filming funds on Kickstarter, but it sounds like people will not be donating to him again after seeing this. At least I hope not.

    1. He reminds me of the kids I didn't like in Hebrew school.

  4. This is a great review, but frankly I don't care that much about Zach Braff. I wasn't the biggest fan of Garden State, as I recall (although I've only seen it once in a film class several years ago, so maybe I'm due for a rewatch), so from the sounds of it, I will probably be even less of a fan of this. I don't think I'll be rushing to see this one.

    1. It's all good. I was trying to be jokey with my initial comment. I can't believe they played Garden State for you in a film class. That's cray cray!

    2. Yeah, I can't even remember specifically which class it was, or why it was being shown (I think I saw Fatal Attraction and The Warriors, both for the first time, in that same class, so who knows?). I remember thinking "I'd probably like this more if I saw it in a non-classroom setting, and weren't already bored and tired," so maybe it was just the way I was watching it, but I haven't really had a desire to revisit it since.

  5. I think this movie is a bit of an ambitious mess. Overall I think the movie is rather sweet, and I appreciate that Zack Braff is trying to create something thoughtful and interesting. there are moments that really work, especially with the musical accompaniment, but the characters don't seem believable. It's a shame because I liked Garden State and can see traces of what made that movie work in this movie. I don't have the same reaction some people have to Zack Braff as a person, which seems kind of personal and dismissive, and I'm not sure where that comes from. It seems like he is trying to create something more than the usual drivel, although he might be more successful just being behind the camera. It is worth mentioning that Kate Hudson is adorable and wasted a bit in this role,