Despite the eventual backlash, Zach Braff wrote, directed, and starred in one of the most talked about indie films of the 2000s with 2004’s Garden State. It elevated Braff to a level that most people didn’t expect given that he had very little on his resume outside of the TV show Scrubs. He followed that up with two disappointing theatrical outings in 2006, The Last Kiss and The Ex. After that, he faded into the background a bit, stuck to Scrubs until it ended in 2010 and the backlash about Garden State being overrated started in earnest on the internet. In 2013, Braff started a Kickstarter fund to help raise funding for the production of Wish I Was Here, a spiritual sequel of sorts to Garden State. Given the end result, I’m glad it is only a spiritual sequel to Garden State and not a direct sequel picking up the life of Andrew Largeman.
Wish I Was Here is the story of a man at a crossroads in his life with work and family. Aidan Bloom is a struggling an actor living in L.A. He’s married to Sarah (Kate Hudson), and they have two children, Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon, the adorable but terrifying kid from Looper!!!!!) enrolled in a Jewish private school paid for by his father (Mandy Patinkin). When his father falls ill and can no longer pay for the school, Aidan is put in charge of homeschooling the kids, while trying to reconcile his father and his brother (Josh Gad). Through teaching his children, Aiden comes to realizations about his himself, his family, and life in general.
There are kernels of what could be a very good film here, but the film is sloppy in the way it handles a lot of it. Of course, Aidan initially has difficulty teaching his kids, as is expected in a dramedy like this. One day, magically, something just clicks and all of a sudden he has turned into some unorthodox version Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society teaching but also dispensing valuable life lessons with ease. Sadly, there is no impetus shown for this change, it’s just there one day after a random chat with his wife.
Speaking of his wife Sarah, she is basically relegated to being background scenery for most of the film. Kate Hudson gets one good scene with Mandy Patinkin in the hospital and a couple of throwaway scenes with Braff and few scenes of her at work that do little for the plot except to show how unhappy she is. It’s not that Kate Hudson is a bad actress, although that has been levied against her in other roles. She’s just not given enough to do here. It is as if Braff overreacted to the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” criticism of Natalie Portman’s Sam in Garden State and went so far in the other direction as to make her completely uninteresting.
Garden State had a few ironic sight gags and observational humor. Wish I Was Here does as well, and some of them work, some don’t. There is a running joke about old people watching kittens on YouTube and finding them hysterical that is the kind of humor that would have been fresher five years ago. The family dynamic has some interesting aspects too, the kids are both good young actors is enjoyable roles, but some of the storyline with Patinkin as their grandfather don’t work quite as well. Josh Gad was good, but felt a little tacked on. However, the conclusion of the family drama does wrap up nice and in a sentimental way, even if the sentiment isn’t entirely earned.
The weakest part of the film, for me, was the way Aidan’s imaginative daydreaming was incorporated into the story. The film opens with him in a space suit and voice over talking about the wonder and imagination and sense of adventure that he and everyone in general have when we are young and how that tends to fade as we grow up. The spaceman is sprinkled throughout the film, implying that it is still there just below the surface and his growth leads him to find something in life that helps him embrace that once again. But it’s handled very poorly and feels out-of-place with the film as a whole.
In the end, Wish I Was Here is a mixed bag. Garden State is a film that resonated with me when I saw it the first time. There is an inkling of something here in this film that could have done the same with some tightening here and some expanding there. Zach Braff the writer/director still interests me, but if he makes another film, I hope he has something more to say.
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars