Wish I Was Here Review: Wish This Movie Didn’t Try So Hard

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Zach Braff’s return to the director’s chair proves to be more heavy-handed than heartwarming.

“Indie films” have long been associated with certain tropes. These are movies that go against the genre-heavy projects of mainstream cinema. They’re off-kilter, but relatable; dealing with quirky people facing real life issues in an often subdued and melancholic fashion. It’s easy for this category of film to become over-saturated with duds that make half-assed attempts to explore the human condition. Every once in a while, however, a gem comes along with a highly original and evocative perspective. Unfortunately, Wish I Was Here is not one of those gems.

The movie is clearly a passion project for Braff, who used the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter to help fund the production. Working from a script he co-wrote with his brother Adam, the former Scrubs star aims to tell the story of a struggling actor named Aidan Bloom, who’s deeply affected by a complicated relationship with his father and is confused about his direction in life. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s well-worn territory for indie movies. In fact, these exact issues were tackled in Braff’s previous directorial effort Garden State.

Garden State worked, however, because it was honest about its feelings. Braff created a group of oddball characters who were exciting to watch, and let the story do the emotional heavy lifting. With Wish I Was Here, he seems to be trying to recapture the same sort of moody magic, but has decided upon explicitly telling the audience when it should feel the most sad.

Aidan’s life isn’t perfect, but it goes from manageable to messy when his father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Suddenly he’s forced to make big decisions in a time when his own goals have yet to become fully realized. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) and two kids Grace and Tucker (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon, respectively) try to support him as best they can, but they’re dealing with their own equally troubling issues. All the while, Aidan’s brother Noah (Josh Gad) removes himself as far as possible from situation, having always felt like a failure in the eyes of his dad.

Plot-wise, there are several interesting dynamics at play. Aidan and Sarah become flustered in the face of death, while their devoutly Jewish daughter attempts to seek solace in her religion. Gabe seems to trust Aidan the most, and yet can’t help but berate him for his life choices. The message that Braff is offering is that life is tricky, and there’s no specific age at which you figure everything out.

All of this could potentially make for an impactful film. Unfortunately, the direction is too intent on making sure every emotional beat is felt ten times over. For every poignant scene—such as a quietly lovely hospital bed conversation between Gabe and Sarah—there are several more that feature a thumping alt-rock tune and dialogue that sounds like it was ripped from a life advice quote on Instagram.  Everyone is constantly learning meaningful lessons through seemingly banal activities, such as when Aidan and Tucker pull apart their fence while Grace reads aloud from the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall.” It’s all just too on the nose.

Music was a large part of Garden State‘s success, as the soundtrack perfectly complimented the feelings and experiences of the story. Here, the songs are blaring; drowning almost every scene in a state of everlasting wistfulness while the characters move about in slow motion. At times, I wondered if I was simply watching an elongated music video set to one of Braff’s iPod playlists. Music is great for enhancing a film’s narrative, but it should never act in place of it.

The most positive aspect of the movie lies in its performances, with the actors all primed to do their best with the material. Hudson and Patinkin steal the show with their understated charm, and up-and-comer King displays a wide range of talent. As Aidan, Braff acts as a compelling lead, but his onscreen persona also seems to want to forcefully drive home the film’s sentimentality. His lines are often delivered with unnecessary emphasis, as if to make sure we know what he’s saying is important.

There’s some humor to be found as well, though it mostly seems to distract from the film’s overall tone of dissatisfaction. Strangely enough, the finale ends up being the most earnest part of the whole movie. In it’s final moments, Wish I Was Here scrambles together some genuine pathos. Perhaps this is because the style shifts into more authentic territory. The dialogue is naturalistic, the music is effective in a background position, and for once it feels easy to connect with these characters’ plight. If only you didn’t have to sit through over an hour of mushiness to get there.

Braff is a gifted director, and it’s a shame to see him simply trying to repeat his formula for success on a larger scale. There are moments in the film that show his potential to make some real indie gems, but first he needs to realize that lightning never strikes in the same place twice. Grace: C+

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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