A lot of people thought Zach Braff had some nerve asking his fans to fund his new film through Kickstarter. A millionaire actor needs us to pay for his little comedy drama to get made. They might have a point, but the fact remains that WISH I WAS HERE might have never been made or released without audiences making it clear that it was something they would be interested in seeing. The number of producers involved (fourteen, for those who care) reflects just how much money and talent had to be outsourced, what a joint effort the film represents. Thankfully, the end result is pretty good. It’s nowhere near as complete and satisfying a film as Braff’s directorial debut GARDEN STATE, but there’s still a lot to like.
Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is having a bad time. His acting career in LA is stagnating, leaving his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) as the increasingly drained family breadwinner, and his children are proving to be a handful. To make matters worse his father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) reveals his cancer has returned with terminal aggressiveness, and with no other family to rely upon – least of all his layabout brother Noah (Josh Gad) – Aidan becomes his father’s sole carer despite needing more than a little life affirmation himself.
Zach Braff and his sibling co-writer Adam are funny guys. There’s some good gags throughout the film, my favourites including the sight of an Orthodox Rabbi in a high-vis vest; Aidan’s brother Noah giving up on the “saturated market” of app design to go into blogging; a group of auditioning black actors reminiscing bitterly about how they’ve all had to play Othello; Aidan’s son Tucker’s (Pierce Gagnon) rather alarming obsession with power drills. The whole thing has an appealing air of self-deprecation in terms of the references made to Braff’s real life in Orthodox Judaism and career as a (not always successful) performer.
Braff uses the character of Aidan’s father Gabe as an audience surrogate, voicing what many of us are thinking – you’re an actor and you’re complaining about your lifestyle? If you really wanted more disposable income so your kids could keep going to the nice Jewish school you want them to then you’d get a proper job. This is a clever idea in theory, beating critics of Braff’s priorities to the punch, though it doesn’t exactly make the Blooms pitiable – they’re going through a very middle-class struggle, after all. It’s a battle for comfort rather than necessity. Yes, Aidan’s dad will soon die, yes his children might have to change school and yes, his wife works next to a lecherous moron, but in the grand scheme of things their life isn’t all that bad.
The young actors playing Aidan Bloom’s children are both pretty special finds. Pierce Gagnon has almost boundless energy and an impish sense of mischief as Tucker and Joey King brings a thoughtful maturity, honesty and convincing awkwardness to Grace, a teen absolutely certain of her own beliefs but unsure if her family will ever fit in the way she’d like them to. Braff is good as Aidan, even if he still doesn’t look old enough to be a father of two, and dramatically speaking was more convincing as a man with depression in Garden State than he is as someone dealing with grief here. It’s always nice to see Kate Hudson and Mandy Patinkin getting decent roles, and both have believable chemistry with Braff.
It does at times feel like Braff is trying a little too hard to be quirky. Did we really need a scene where Grace puts a pair of steampunk-y welding goggles on her dying grandfather, a sequence visualising the childhood fantasies Aidan describes as a futuristic action movie, or a cool indie soundtrack that was quite so incessant?
The whole film is heartfelt but naive, perceptive yet idealised. Anyone who has lost a close relative knows you don’t usually get the notice to prepare the perfect sendoff, nor is your dying loved one usually in a fit state to impart some final words of wisdom. This is independent cinema with rather conventional Hollywood trappings, which is a shame, but at least the emotions seem real. It’s this humanity at the film’s heart that ultimately saves it from becoming too mawkish or “alternative”. SSP