“Wish I Was Here” ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Jim Parsons, and Ashley Greene
Written by: Zach Braff and Adam Braff
Directed by: Zach Braff
Perhaps more than any filmmaker working today, Zach Braff is adept at focusing on a pivotal moment in a character’s life and capturing the emotional depth and lasting impact inherent in said moment. His 2004 masterpiece Garden State was a seminal film for me, and influenced not only my musical tastes but permeated my thoughts for some time. It seemed to exist solely to speak to my state of mind. Of course, it’s a film that I believe spoke to many in my age group, but that is the idea I’m attempting to convey- it captured something specific in that character and mirrored the emotions of the audience. Wish I Was Here is more of the same, yet different, if that makes sense, but a joy in its’ own right. As Braff the director, actor, and person has grown, his output appears to have followed, and it translates into one of the year’s best films.
Braff directs himself as foul-mouthed yet spirited father and struggling actor Aidan Bloom- inching towards 40, yet still not entrenched in a ‘life’s work’ situation. His two children (King and Gagnon) are reasonably well-adjusted, and his marriage, despite its’ financial difficulties, is strong. He and his on-screen wife (Kate Hudson) depict an unlikely film duo- realistic, likable, supportive, yet cognizant of their struggles, working together for something better. Their portrayals are a welcome breath of fresh air to on-screen couples- still sexy and oozing chemistry despite having to talk about all that silly ‘real life’ stuff. Other filmmakers could learn a thing or two from what Braff does here- respecting his characters enough to have intelligent, real thoughts about their lives and not harbor mounds of regret- or look for an escape.
Aidan’s life, as a whole, is at a crossroad. Like men his age everywhere, he feels the need to take stock and find a direction forward. His cancer-stricken father (Patinkin) is not-so-subtly disappointed in his professional choices, his disconnected brother (Gad) lives by himself and doesn’t want to help, and he can’t get steady work. Braff makes a conscious choice here to do something different with this character. As opposed to falling back on a typical cinematic storyline for a character in dire straits, where they cheat on their wife, go on a lavish vacation, or buy a flashy car, Braff writes his character differently by allowing him to go back to what makes him happy. He daydreams about the good parts of his childhood, including the rich, make-believe world he and his brother created where they were heroes, escaping a ‘hooded’ dark figure on some remote planet (insert vague paternal symbolism joke here). He takes his children on a ‘quasi-vacation’ to places that gave him comfort before, spending only what he needs from the family’s ‘swear jar’. He makes a sincere attempt to bring his estranged brother back into the fold- for after all, as the oldest, it’s important to feel that sense of responsibility. These may seem like very ‘un-cinematic’ choices to make, but their simplicity actually enriches the story, and results in a series of touching, funny, and emotionally resonant scenes.
I must mention the brilliant accompanying soundtrack, which lends a very specific richness to the material. Braff clearly has the gift of matching songs to moments- whether or not he was directly or indirectly responsible for the music of “Scrubs”, it was generally spot-on. The music of Garden State was also a revelation- a compilation that led me to a side of the musical world I barely knew. Here, he uses Paul Simon again, Bon Iver twice, Badly Drawn Boy, and a wonderful track entitled “Raven Song” by Aaron Embry. As opposed to most modern cinema, where music is nothing but an odd, off-putting distraction or the set up for a punchline, Braff creates a real companion piece here with his selections, informing the plot as opposed to taking us out of it. I recognize that ‘indie’ music brings with it an air of pomposity, and Braff has been criticized for an overly emo/acoustic/hipster sensibility. Regardless of a person’s musical preferences, the music here is subtle, seamlessly flowing with the story.
Sure, there are countless films that tackle ‘life crossroads’, or the emotional impact of a parent’s illness. There are plenty of films that use indie sounds and sensibilities and symbolism ad nauseam. Wish I Was Here is all of those things- it’s just better than about every one of them. This is a script that takes its’ time to recognize poignant moments, has enough intelligence to hold back when it should, and a love for each character, giving every lead an important scene that makes their existence sensible and resonant to the story. I connected with this film on a deeply emotional level- perhaps it is because I like what Braff does; perhaps his character’s age simply mirrors mine and the emotions I tend towards now; perhaps there are just some films that seem to ‘get’ us more than others. This is a film that most definitely ‘gets me’, but in fairness, succeeds in spite of me as well. I can say with a degree of giddiness that I anxiously await Braff’s next creative project, but as the cliché states, sometimes genius takes time. Ten years between directing gigs may seem extensive, but if it results again in one of the year’s best films, it will undoubtedly be worth the wait.