What it's about:
Aidan Bloom, a thirty-five year old husband, father and struggling actor, is confronted simultaneously by a dying father, a deadbeat brother, an impasse in his acting career and the sudden lack of finances to put his kids through the private Jewish day school they have been attending. With his life in flux he is forced to confront his deepest beliefs, dreams and ambitions, while trying to hold himself and his family together.
What we thought:
As a general rule, when I call a movie an ill-disciplined, tonally inconsistent mess, I tend to mean that as a criticism. And yet, when it comes to Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff's long-delayed follow up to his massively popular directorial début Garden State, the film's unwieldy messiness and its incoherent shabbiness are somehow a big part of why I like it as much as I do. Only something this true-to-life could be this messy.
Like Garden State before it, Wish I Was Here is as obviously personal as it is personalized. Directed by and starring Braff, who also co-wrote the script with his brother, Adam, the film feels less like a carefully crafted and finely honed work of fiction than the work of a filmmaker who just vomited out all his frustrations, doubts and fears into a seemingly slightly fictionalized version of his own life.
Whether this is actually the case, I have no idea, as I know next to nothing about Braff's personal life, but it certainly seems that way. It's hard not to see in the struggling actor that he portrays, for example, a reflection of Braff's own difficulty getting work (even this film is a result of a Kickstarter campaign, rather than typical studio funding) since the end of his beloved TV show, Scrubs. Similarly, Braff has always been proudly and unmistakably Jewish and he clearly brings all of his own beliefs and doubts about the religion to the fore in what is easily the year's most openly Jewish film - confidently taking that crown from John Torturo's surprisingly Jewish, Fading Gigolo.
Whether its story is a fabrication or a barely concealed memoir matters less, however, than the fact that Wish I Was Here feels, down to its very core, like the expression of a very singular creative vision. This is a Zach Braff film through and through so, if you didn't like Garden State, you may well want to give this a miss (even if I think it's actually the more interesting film) but if you're looking for an antidote to the made-by-committee feel of even the best Hollywood blockbusters, it should be just what you're looking for.
Like Garden State then, Wish I Was Here clearly has a number of faults. Along with its general messiness, it's also at times just a bit too twee for its own sake (an impressive feat for a non-British filmmaker) and, for all the obvious honesty of the storytelling, it still comes across as somewhat clichéd at times too. But that's just Zach Braff for you. Flaws or no flaws though, the film has a number of excellent performances, well-drawn characters and the sense that it's a movie that actually has something to say. Also, though it does sadly decrease as the film goes on, the surprisingly biting and undeniably funny humour in the film, only punctuate its more profound and moving moments, while helping to deflate much of its mawkishness.
As a practising Jew, the film's exploration of Judaism and general religious and spiritual belief rang very true to me (even if Braff does, at one point, have an Orthodox Rabbi refer to a synagogue as a “temple”), while its explorations of the practical reality of following one's dream resonated for me as a struggling writer. Admittedly, Aidan's father's dying by cancer was a lot less messy than it is in real life but that's more of a relief than anything else. Either way though, any film that feels this honest deserves praise, rather than the critical drubbing it has received by most overseas critics.
One of the most pleasant surprises about the film though is that though this is a film that largely centres around a male protagonist and his brother and father, Braff graciously allows the women to steal the show. Both in terms of the characters they portray and in their performances themselves, Kate Hudson (!) and young Joey King are the true heart of the film, as Aidan's wife and daughter respectively.
And honestly, the fact that Wish I Was Here contains the firstly truly great Kate Hudson performance in years, makes it worth seeing all by itself