Much has been written about Zach Braff’s Kickstarter effort to get the film Wish I Was Here funded: should he do it, why did he do it, couldn’t he just front his own money for the film, is any of it really necessary? I had friends hotly debate why they should/shouldn’t contribute to the cause, what it means about creativity and art and artistic freedom, and what it might say about wealthy celebrities and their vanities. So now that the film has been funded, produced, and playing in theaters, you might be wondering whether or not you should even bother to go and see what all the fuss was about.
Having recently seen it, I think I can honestly say that you can skip checking this out at your local theater. It wouldn’t make for a bad in-home rental, but it’s definitely not a must-see film. Which is unfortunate, as the movie is clearly a labor of love for Braff; and I wanted to like it more than I did. And I hoped that it was nothing like Garden State (which I loved when it came out), but I felt it did revisit many of the same tropes from Garden State, and it ultimately all seemed a bit unnecessary. Was my opinion already tainted by the whole Kickstarter debate? Possibly. But the movie, and its characters, certainly felt familiar to me, and I was looking forward to watching something new.
Aidan Bloom (played by Braff) is a struggling actor in LA who has issues with his father and a deceased mother (sounds familiar), has a wife and two kids (well, that aspect is different), an odd-yet-genius brother who lives in a trailer by the ocean, and is searching for the purpose in his life (that sure sounds familiar). Don’t get me wrong, I think the film is well intentioned, but I think that Braff (and his brother, who co-wrote the script) is presenting us a story that’s very similar to his directorial debut from 10 years ago. A case could be made that we’re looking at Andrew Largeman’s life (from Garden State) 10 years down the road. What would he be like as a husband and father?
Well, he’d probably be a lot like Aidan Bloom in this movie: still struggling as an actor, but now also struggling to be a good husband, good father, good man. To boot, he has two precocious kids asking him questions about life that he doesn’t yet feel equipped to answer. In one telling scene, after Aidan decides to home school his kids, his bright, overachieving daughter winds up taking over during “math class,” and teaches her father about geometry and obtuse angles.
Aidan is also constantly struggling in his relationship with his father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), a man who never misses an opportunity to deride his son’s chosen “profession.” Even when his father reveals that he’s quite ill, which is why he can no longer provide financial support for the kids’ private school, he still manages to question his son’s ability to be a man. Aidan’s brother Noah (Josh Gad) already had his fill of this sort of tough love from Gabe, which explains why after their mother died he chose to live a solitary life holed up in a beachside trailer, writing antagonizing tweets to celebrities like Miley Cyrus (yes, that actually happens).
On the husband front Aidan isn’t doing such a swell job, either. His wife Sarah (played by Kate Hudson) is the primary bread winner in the family, working for the water company while Aidan pursues his dream of becoming a successful actor (even though his last paying gig was in a dandruff commercial). One night the couple decides to go out alone to discuss how to best proceed with their kids’ tuition situation. During the course of a conversation they ask one another when they think the other person’s happiest moment was. Surprisingly, neither of them say it was when either of their kids were born or even the day that they got married. For Sarah, she thinks it was when Aidan was performing in a small playhouse Shakespeare production. For Aidan, it was the first time he saw her—she was riding her surfboard off in the distance. Sarah notes how he couldn’t even properly see her during this supposed happiest moment in her life. She soon asks Aidan when it happened that his dream became the only dream possible. In that moment I think she wished she had a husband who was more “here” than “there” (“there” equating to “head in the clouds/out to sea”).
Speaking of dreams (and Kickstarter, in a sense), in one scene Aidan goes to ask the school’s rabbi for “Tzedakah” (Hebrew for “charity”) and the rabbi scoffs at him, saying that a real man works to support his family. Aidan asks the rabbi if he doesn’t think that god believes in Aidan’s pursuit of his own happiness, to which the rabbi emphatically responds “No!”
In between these larger issues some smaller, entertaining moments emerge: the daughter shaves her head in a moment of defiance and gets to pick out a funky fuschia wig, the family keeps a swear jar which allows for a fun scene where the kids are allowed to curse as much as they want for a few minutes without getting penalized, Aidan takes the kids on a joyride in an Aston Martin under the false pretense that his bald daughter is a sick kid, Josh Gad’s character is smitten with a neighbor (dressed like a Furry) and becomes determined to make the best spaceman costume ever and then go to Comic Con and win her over with his amazing creation (which works, and they totally bone), Jim Parsons has a brief role as another struggling actor who always winds up on the same cattle calls as Aidan. Fans of The Big Bang Theory will get a kick out of the short trajectory of his (very) minor character.
In the same way that trying to wear clothing you got away with in your 20s looks less flattering on you in your mid-30s, it can also be said that revisiting the same philosophical quarter-life crises and uncertainty that you struggled with a decade earlier just doesn’t wear well. Ten years is a fair amount of time for a person to create change in their life, but what we see in Wish I Was Here is a man who is not fully realized, mostly because he refuses to take ownership of his life and become that man.
So, will you the viewer wish you were seeing this movie? No, probably not. There are other small, promising independent films currently in theaters that I think you should check out instead. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is fantastic; What If, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan is definitely another. Begin Again, with Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley is also a wonderful recent film that’s still playing in theaters.