Wish I was loving it
If Garden State was Zach Braff’s quarter-life crisis film (I think we can probably agree that it was), then Wish I Was Here is here to announce the mid-life crisis. The ‘famous in one role’ actor dealing with his mother’s death and waiting for life to start is now the ‘will following my dream ever come to anything or result in a role that will allow me to feed my kids’ actor who is trying to prepare himself for his father’s death and beginning to wonder if life has passed him by. To be fair though, it’s more endearing than that sentence lets on.
Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a struggling actor supported by a father who pays for his kids school fees as long as they go to a Jewish school and a wife (Kate Hudson) who works a 9-5 in a cubicle he has chosen to believe is her dream job. Content to go to a series of auditions that lead nowhere beyond a dandruff commercial, it’s only when his father develops terminal cancer and decides to use his savings on an experimental treatment that Aidan is forced to face not just the loss of his only surviving parent but with the financial reality that his children present. He takes his kids out of private school and takes on the task of home-schooling them through to the end of the year as they try to deal with the impending loss of their grandfather. With field trips sponsored by the swear jar and tasks largely determined by his father’s misplaced criticisms about the state of his backyard, that there’s going to be some self-discovery going down is clear from early on.
Make no mistake, the self-discovery is largely charming and if it’s feel good that you’re looking for, you’ll find it here. However, this film, probably most famous for how it was made – via a much talked about kickstarter campaign – is most weighed down by its origins. From the obligatory Twitter moment (even if it is a fat guy in a trailer trolling Miley Cyrus) to the must-have nod to comic-con, the extent to which this film is an ode to the internet and fans that enabled it is undeniably sweet, but ever so slightly too much so. Sure, the Games of Throne pillow talk feels like something from your Twitter feed, but by the time Donald Faison arrives for his inevitable cameo it’s less fulfilling than the glee we should feel for the opportunity to see this famous TV bromance reunited. There’s just too much of it. Endearing as each nod is on its own, slapped together they seem to be working a bit too hard.
Braff is at his best in his deftness with small moments – dealing with an overly religious daughter who won’t wear bright colours, except on her head, and a son who loves fart jokes. It’s in the ancient rabbi unsuccessfully navigating hospital corridors on a segway, in a row of black actors reminiscing on that time they played Othello in college, or his son (bored with his Jewish school) taking a drill to school. At its heart this is a film about walls – the ones we build consciously between ourselves and others for our own protection, and the ones that go up when we aren’t looking, built by the conversations it’s easier not to have. If it had stayed in that space, it would have been better for it. In it’s steps toward the symbolic (Robert Frost on the wall front) it gets itself into some trouble.
Clanging attempts at symbolism detract from the film’s heart. That the dream haunting Aidan as his father faces death is of him as a space hero running from a dark figure that… oh I’m not even going to take this Star Wars reference to it’s conclusion because I’m guessing you can see where it’s (Luke I am your…) going. Something there is that does not love obvious predictable references.
On the up side the manic pixie dream girl has grown up enough in this movie to ask the boy how it is that their relationship is all about his dream, but she still exists to remind dying guys how to follow their heart and living guys how to figure out the home-schooling website. Perhaps most compelling for the vast number of Braff fans will be that he has, as writing coaches love to say one should, written what he knows. Those who identified with Garden State’s quarter-life crisis because they were living it will no doubt find elements of a mid-life crisis meditation compelling because that’s what they’re living now.
But is that enough? For an OK movie, yes. Wish I Was Here is that. I’d even go further and call it sweet, pleasant and heart-warming and I’ll even concede I liked it. And yet it disappoints. Braff has come so close to making a film about the life that happens to all of us in the real world while the people in management are watching kitten videos on YouTube. It was so almost about the things we all get stuck in, whether that’s losing a parent or focusing so hard on the dream that we miss the life that’s right in front of us. That film could have been hugely compelling. That film could have been hugely refreshing. That film wouldn’t have felt weighed down by sentimentality. That film wouldn’t have felt like it was trying to salute the internet that funded it. That film I might have not just liked loved. I think it’s hiding somewhere underneath an obligatory Star Wars reference.
Out of a possible five strawberries, I’ll give it a two-and-a-half.
By Marie Straub