For some reason, I love to make negative generalizations about people who I have little to no experience with. For years, Zach Braff has been one of those people. I have never seen Scrubs, or Garden State, in fact, 100% of my annoyance towards him must be a manifestation of the traumatic experience that was Chicken Little (in which he plays the title role). I couldn’t give you a good reason for this distain, often resorting to the tired “I don’t like his face/voice” argument, although my distain for his campaign to get this film funded on Kickstarter despite being a wealthily celebrity who could have easily funded it himself certainly gave me a little more ammunition as of late. However, I decided to leave all of that at the door when I walked into the theater today.
Wish I Was Here centers on Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff), a struggling actor who spends his days waiting in audition rooms while his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) slaves at a gloomy water department job to feed their two kids, Grace and Tucker (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon). On top of all this, he finds out that his father (Mandy Patinkin) has cancer, and is spending a large amount of money on experimental treatment, the same money that was keeping Grace and Tucker in a high end Jewish school. Fearful of the nearby public school, Aidan takes matters into his own hands, pulling his kids out of the academy, and taking it upon himself to homeschool them, hoping to teach something about life in the process.
Before we even get into the film itself, I must pay it a great complement. I now like Zach Braff, very much in fact. I could not have been more wrong about him. Not only does he have impeccable comedic timing, hinging on a very sharp, cynical wit, but he also balances that out with some very authentic, genuine acting. Aidan’s plight could have very easily come off as contrived, but because of Braff’s heavily invested performance, we are never allowed to forget that this guy is just a desperate father trying to find a connection with the people around him. He is also rather talented as a director, with a particularly keen eye for scenery. He and cinematographer Lawrence Sher inject a lot of beauty into some very mundane settings, and take full advantage of some more scenic ones. Even if the rest of the film does not always come together, I am now fully sold on Braff’s talent and look forward to checking out his other work.
All of the actors here put everything they can into it. Patinkin in particular is absolutely heartbreaking as Braff’s father, a man who never quite found that happy medium between being a stern and loving father, which particularly affected his other son Noah, played surprisingly well by Josh Gad, who in my opinion is a great deal more bearable in dramatic roles. Kate Hudson does what is by far her best work to date, abandoning her usual bland snappy blonde persona for something a little down to earth. Even the kids are good here, especially Joey King. She actually gets a whole lot to do, struggling with maintaining her Jewish faith in a world that really isn’t built for that anymore. I can definitely see her growing into a great talent later down the line.
So with all these great performances and authentic characters, one might think I loved this film. Not really. While this movie certainly has a great deal of working elements, it falls victim to it’s own sentimentality. The first half is really solid, with sharp writing winning out and a great deal of laughs to balance out the dark material. However, once the whole homeschooling adventure gets going, the movie completely switches gears. What was a very black family comedy with some very deeply cynical humor turns into the typical, cliched father bonding with his children story. The situations and dialogue become extremely schmaltzy, with some moments that would be at home in a Lifetime movie. The pacing also really starts to lag, especially towards the very end, where the movie seems determined to make you sit there and listen to as many life lesson statements as it can spew out. Basically, it becomes the most well shot and acted father’s day greeting card ever put to film.
Wish I Was Here certainly has it’s heart in the right place, with uniformly great performances to make everything go down smooth. It just becomes much too self involved for it’s own good. It’s like an easy listening track that just goes on for far too long, it’s pleasant, but 8 minutes of that same guitar riff later, and you’re switching the station. I must commend Braff though, he definitely made a solid attempt here, and if nothing else, I’m happy to call myself a fan of his now.