Many of us have spent the last year or so grumbling about how Zach Braff doesn’t exactly need strangers’ money to make his sophomore film Wish I was Here, which just premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Of course, we now know that it was more of a marketing experiment, aiming to prove to real investors that there was an audience for the film (in addition to the kickstarter funds, they bolstered the budget to about $10m– and they’ll see more of a return on their investment than just a t-shirt). But let’s set that whole discussion aside for a little while, and see if simply take a look at the final product on its own merits, shall we?
- Director: Zach Braff
- Writers: Zach Braff, Adam Braff
- Cinematographer: Lawrence Sher
- Actors: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Jim Parsons, Ashley Greene
Aidan Bloom (Braff) is an actor struggling to get his career off the ground, while his wife (Hudson) supports their family. When he learns that his father (Patinkin) is dying of cancer, he and his family have to face the uncertain and daunting task of embarking on the next chapter of their lives.
Maturity: It’s been a decade since Garden State, and Braff has indeed grown as a writer and director. In Wish I was Here, he is dealing with greater themes than simply isolation and malaise. And while those notions are still present in Wish I Was Here, by placing his character in a family, rather than a twenty-something adrift in life, they are given a greater context which feels a bit more natural. But beyond existentialism, Wish hones in on exploring relationships between spouses, siblings, parents, and of course, the inevitable loss of our parents that we all must face (and actually engages it, rather than responding with a sort of numbness in Garden State). And even though a not so subtle fantasy subplot falls a little flat, it’s nice to see him pushing himself as a filmmaker.
Production: At one point I thought to myself, “At least he spent all the money. It’s all up there, on the screen.” He kept his promises to shoot in LA (which ain’t cheap, these days), include some big special effects shots (the aforementioned fantasy subplot), and cast all his TV and film pals at their working rates. Also, there some large steadicam, car crane, and helicopter shots, as well as constantly stylish lighting. It just stands as proof of his commitment to making the best movie he possibly could.
I Love You, Dad: I’m a sucker for this trope, no matter what the film. Be it Big Fish, What Dreams May Come, or Return of the Jedi… If there’s tension between father and son that gets resolved, I am on board. Mandy Patinkin plays the patriarch of this family with his characteristic firmness and charm, and grounds the relationships with real sincerity. Josh Gad also turns in an impressive performance as the more alienated of the two sons, and his reticence to confront their issues shows a heretofore unseen ability as a dramatic actor. Kate Hudson also has a particularly strong scene with Patankin, as they pass the torch from one strong figure in the family to the other. By shedding her flirtiness with the camera and taking her character seriously, she turns in a stronger performance than I had expected.
Manipulation: I’m sure we all understand that movies are manipulative by nature, guiding you to particular feelings by various subtle techniques. Subtlety, however, is not Braff’s forte. The distance between Aidan and his wife is literally shown by keeping them at nearly opposite ends of the screen for almost the whole film. And the music cues are so heavy handed (as they are in Garden State), that they practically pull you from the story, as if to shout at you “YOU SHOULD FEEL SAD NOW!” The transitions between humor and emotion are abrupt, and it comes at the cost of naturalism which could make it a truly effective film.
There seem to be three separate camps on the matter of Braff’s films: Those who abjectly loathe his indulgent sentimentality, those who are tremendous fans of his cartoonish humor, and those who are simply ambivalent. Wish I Was Here left me standing somewhere between the latter two, leaning much more closely to having enjoyed it.