Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Zach Braff
Screenplay: Adam J. Braff, Zach Braff.
Runtime: 106 minutes.
Cast: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon.
Plot: Failing actor Aidan Bloom finds himself in the midst of an early midlife crisis – with his wife struggling to support the family, his father dying of cancer, and being unable to afford the expensive Jewish school his children have been attending. Audition after audition takes its toll, as he is forced to assume more responsibilities on behalf of his father and convince him to reconcile with a brother stuck in arrested development.
Review: We’re stuck in a curious cultural moment right now, with Generation X finally settling down into the domesticated life they so slothfully loathed during their teenage years, and taking it about as well as you would expect. For the record, I’m Gen Y – so a part of the most culturally maligned generation since the fall of the Byzantine Empire (‘Worst – period – generation – period – ever – period.’ Thanks you sad, weird, fading old coke-head; I'd say 'Worst. Writing. Ever.' But there's still Studio 60). All this while the Baby Boomers continue to live off the good work of their parents and their investment properties; and those unmotivated 35-50 year olds are too busy being steeped in their own ennui to stop and notice the rest of us. Enter Zach and Adam Braff’s Wish I Was Here, an anthem for thousands of Gen X-ers shrugging their way through their marriages, or whatever.
Beginning with your classic Scrubs voiceover, Wish I Was Here relates the sad tale of lapsed Jew Aiden Bloom (a pedestrian Zach Braff) – an actor struggling with his lack of success, and being supported by his dutiful wife. His father (the usual Mandy Patinkin playing Mandy Patinkin, relying on his abundant hair to do most of the acting) looms large in his life, as a disapproving force and more vitally as the man who funds his grandchildren’s education. When his father’s cancer returns and the school money is needed for his treatment, Aiden must confront both the inevitable death of his father and being unable to support his family. Throughout the film Braff exudes a low level of tension and frustration, mistakenly feeling that doing good in the world is satisfied by being a cool wise-cracking dad (the effect is very much in line with the excellent performances of the much better Married on FX). All indications would seem that he is not a great father; but pretty much as non-committal and half-hearted in performing that task as most of the rest of his cohort. Added to this is his brother Noah (Josh Gad), a huge disappointment to their father because of his enormous potential and choice to live the life of a pop-culture blogger and sci-fi hermit. His main achievement throughout the film is to build an impressive costume for Comic Con in order to get laid by a furry. Aidan is left playing the reluctant Michael Bluth of the family, trying to keep everything together to less amusing results.
Does this film succeed as a touching drama and expression of an existential condition? No. The jabs at melodrama are far too broad and clichéd to merit respect, the conclusion of the film too predictable and easy. There are some genuinely touching moments with wife Sarah (an excellent Kate Hudson), and an attempt to gain insight into what it is like not to have found your passion and labor away at a terrible job you have to be grateful for just because it supports your family. There are some fascinating gender issues here that are thoroughly unexplored, save for a terribly clichéd sexual harassment storyline (where the hero is, inappropriately, Braff’s lacklustre character and not his wife’s restraint and strength).I feel deeply sorry for her character, having to cart a man-child on her back. But of course this analysis gets short shrift, to make way for more lingering shots of Braff’s expressionless jowls. His condition is utterly uninteresting; simply marking the next stage in the Gen X character development project documented through Slacker,Reality Bites, S.F.W., PCU, Clerks, Office Space, Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle et. al. (and there is a great article on this line of film making by Sean O’Neal here, that I am essentially just cutting and pasting from). In short, from a drama perspective there is nothing new to see here – and even less to find worthwhile for documenting.
Does the film succeed as a comedy? Partially, but with the caveat that many of the best jokes are contained within the trailer, and it is often a long walk between drinks over the 100 minutes or so of running time. All of the great jokes of the film seem to cluster around his children and their education, as well as their Judaism, which is mined for some great material (Aiden’s bad-Jew routine up against his daughter’s religious well-versedness is a particular delight). Apart from that, Braff has a talent for surreal compositions springing out of the ordinary, for example in an audition waiting room where he obviously hasn’t been informed that they are looking for a black actor. A dozen black actors repeat terrible lines under their breath, until one complains that he shouldn’t have to do this shit – ‘In college I did Othello!’ ‘We all did’ the chorus responds. Similarly, his repartee with his children – at one point having to home school his little boy, who has no interest in studying and yells ‘triangle!’ in defiant response to a question directed to someone else. ‘Correct, but no extra points for yelling,’ Aiden responds. Little Pierce Gagnon deserves high praise for being the liveliest and most entertaining character of the film, casually wreaking havoc in the midst of a lot of mid-90’s self seriousness.
The rest is a mixed bag; will an ill-considered framing device of Braff imagining himself as a character in a cut-rate Guardians of the Galaxy, jokes that involve a dog pissing, and post-coital banter that includes a few spoilers for the first season of Game of Thrones. Everything I have to say about this film comes back to one description – half-hearted – and no more so than the script’s indifferent attempts at literary credibility, at one point quoting Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and at another point Frost’s Mending Wall. The appeal is pretty weak, like poems half-begrudgingly remembered from grade school, and the latter is cited as they literally mend a wall. A close and intelligent reading of those texts this isn’t, just the usual cheap referentiality. Neither of them have any meaningful connection to the substance of the film. I was surprised Braff didn’t conclude with a citation of the beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, completing the trifecta of lazy undergraduate poetic references.
Most notably, the film was crowd funded. So I can only assume that a generation of fans are getting what they paid for; but it was not for me, nor is it likely to be broadly successful beyond those who haven’t already bought into the style of Braff’s flat, affectless Garden State. If we must indeed measure out our lives in coffee spoons, and wear the bottoms of our trousers rolled, then our precious time is best spent in company better than this.
Rating: Two and a half.