Wish I Was Here definitely suffers from some sophomore stumbles but still possesses enough memorable performances, biting wit, and thought-provoking insights to be a worthwhile viewing.
In Wish I Was Here Aiden Bloom (Zach Braff) is a family man and struggling actor - still waiting for his big break in Hollywood. A father of two, Aiden is supported by his hard-working wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), who holds down an unrewarding data entry job so that her husband can attend casting auditions and chase his dreams. Aiden's own father, Saul (Mandy Patinkin), also lends a hand, paying for the Bloom children, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), to attend a Jewish private school.
However, when mounting medical costs and deteriorating health cause Saul to default on the tuition payments, Aiden is forced to face reality: he's 35 years old, pursuing a dream that is unlikely to pan out, while neglecting his family, house, and self-worth. Unsure of what to do next, he procures the Bloom swear jar and, joined by Grace and Tucker, sets out to mend the relationship between his father and Aiden's estranged brother, Noah (Josh Gad), refurbish the family home, prepare his children for life in public school, as well as contemplate a new direction in adult life.
Serving as director, co-writer (with brother Adam J. Braff), producer, and star, Zach Braff utilized a Kickstarter campaign to get production on Wish I Was Here financed. Crowd-funding the project was a controversial choice, especially after Worldview Entertainment signed on to provide additional funding for the movie, but the filmmaker maintains that Wish I Was Here - his first directorial effort since 2004's Garden State - would not have made it to screens within the traditional studio system. It was an interesting experiment (one that other screenwriters have already started considering), but the end result is a mixed, yet enjoyable blend of poignant insights within derivative story arcs. Moviegoers who relished in Garden State will find Braff's unique style remains intact - although his sophomore effort is less focused (and less original) than its predecessor.
Without question, Wish I Was Here's primary story lines have been explored multiple times on film before. Aiden's arc borrows heavily from ageless narratives (a man-child forced to take control of life and reconcile with a terminally ill parent); yet, while audiences should have little trouble predicting how the film's various pieces will fit together by the end, wrapping up in a tidy but still authentic finale, Braff injects enough moments of ironic humor and insightful humanity to elevate Wish I Was Here above hollow imitation. Across a variety of mediums, acclaimed writers have told similar tales with timeless execution and while Braff's latest attempt may not stand as an age-defying classic, the film contains enough relatable (and downright entertaining) material to provide a thought-provoking and evocative experience for modern moviegoers - not to mention another great "mix tape" soundtrack.
Braff once again chooses to pull double-duty behind as well as in front of the camera - and, much like Garden State, the actor is likable enough in the lead role. It's a sound albeit familiar performance that, in spite of a number of engaging set pieces, plays to the actor's strengths without pushing his limits, or revealing anything particularly surprising. As a result, many will wonder if Wish I Was Here might have been better had the filmmaker elected to direct a separate actor in the lead role.
Given that the movie was an indie passion project, it was understandable (and frugal) for Braff to play Aiden but, in hindsight, it's possible the actor/director was ultimately spread too thin this round - resulting in a performance and larger film that isn't quite as crisp as it could have been. Some viewers will chastise select scenes from Braff's performance but most fans (the ones who helped fund the movie) will likely appreciate seeing the actor back on screen.
Fortunately, the supporting cast offer plenty of charming performances - especially Joey King and Pierce Gagnon who play Aiden's children. In a film that relies heavily on recognizable character archetypes, Grace and Tucker are drawn with distinct personalities, grounded by sharp portrayals, that inject absorbing conflict as well as smart juxtaposition. Kate Hudson is equally successful, positioning Sarah as a warmhearted caretaker who makes sure that Wish I Was Here never slides into bitter melodrama. While the story focuses heavily on the Bloom men, Sarah's scenes are some of the most poignant. Similarly, even though Mandy Patinkin's Saul and Josh Gad's Noah are mostly outlines, positioned as foils to Aiden, their respective arcs come full circle - with a few genuinely touching moments of revelation.
Viewers who were expecting an entirely fresh take for Braff's chosen subject matter of arrested development, familial responsibility, and terminal illness may find Wish I Was Here to be a derivative copy-and-paste job. Nevertheless, supporters of the filmmaker, his respective cinematic styling, and musical selection, should discover many of the same elements that won them over in Braff's freshman film effort. In the end, Wish I Was Here definitely suffers from some sophomore stumbles but still possesses enough memorable performances, biting wit, and thought-provoking insights to be a worthwhile viewing. Hopefully, when Braff's next project is funded (either by fans or a studio), he'll have learned from this latest experience - preparing the way for a superior junior effort.
Wish I Was Here runs 106 minutes and is Rated R for language and some sexual content. Now playing in theaters.
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