Sundance 2014 Review: Wish I Was Here

Zach Braff’s Kickstarter movie is okay. I’m glad I didn’t pay for it, but I didn’t mind watching it. It’s a much happier movie than Garden State, which could be so somber and melancholy, even though Wish I Were Here is about a character dying of cancer. Maybe Braff is in a happier place.

Aidan (Braff) is an out of work actor whose father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) tells him his cancer is back. With the money for his experimental treatments, he can’t afford to pay for his granddaughters’ Jewish private school anymore, so Aidan and his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) decide on home schooling. Meanwhile Aidan’s trailer park-living brother Noah (Josh Gad) had cut their father off for being a judgmental prick all their lives.

There are a lot of nice moments in Wish I Was Here, most of which don’t go anywhere. There are only three scenes of Aidan trying to figure out home schooling. Couldn’t we get some wacky shenanigans there? Noah becoming a cosplayer is cute. I don’t believe Comic-Con gives a $1000 prize though. In fact, I looked it up and the prize is a membership to next year’s Comic-Con. Way to go, Noah! The only storyline with a clear narrative drive is Gabe’s cancer, because we know how cancer ends. The other stories are wrapped up neatly in epilogue scenes, including a sexual harassment subplot for Sarah, but they don’t feel like complete stories.

Wish I Was Here is beautifully shot, with memorable compositions like Aidan and his two daughters in silhouette on the rocks in a widescreen three shot. There are some good thoughts on what God is and Aidan empowering his children more than himself. It’s really great that Sarah and Aidan include the kids in their big discussions, rather than talking at them and telling them what to feel.

There are some good laughs, many involving the Jewish faith, but more are just smiles. The banter has a good rhythm even if it is a bit like a contrived sitcom. The kids have questions and the answers lead to misunderstandings. Braff is still dealing with the plight of an actor, and I understand that never goes away, so I suppose it’s more appealing with comedic auditioning shenanigans than the morose unfulfillment he portrayed in his last movie. (It remains true that anyone who knows you’re in the film industry thinks you can get their script to Steven Spielberg. Garden State got that right.)

Aidan’s fantasy metaphor really didn’t work for me. He imagines being a space man with a CGI drone following him in otherwise mundane real world settings. The fantasy could have achieved the same effect without any visual effects and a simpler premise. Did Braff learn nothing about imaginary fantasy cutaways from nine years of “Scrubs?”

As you can see there are a lot of elements in Wish I Was Here and that’s very ambitious, but rather disjointed. The visual language and balance of tones shows that Braff is indeed a quality filmmaker. The script could stand to be a tad less sprawling, or perhaps more so if it followed through some of its subplots more. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.


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