I’ve promised myself that I won’t mention Zach Braff’s 2004 writer/director/actor debut feature or compare his latest effort in those fields, “Wish I Was Here” to it in any way during this post. That way I can really focus on “Wish I Was Here” as its own entity.
In fact, this clarifying sentence you’re reading now will be the last time I’ll even vaguely hint at it. Just go ahead and put it right out of your brain. Right. Out.
So 2004’s “Garden State” was really awesome and … Shish kabobs! Sorry. Starting now. Get it out of your mind, will you? Geez.
“Wish I Was Here.” That’s what we’re talking about.
This movie, the new one, it’s not bad. If you head over to Rottentomatoes.com, it looks really bad, but it’s not. It’s rough around the edges. The first act is decidedly not great, plot points are introduced and forgotten about on occasion and some of the plot threads we did stick with, I’m not sure we needed to.
But it also features that blend of laugh out loud funny and poignant “What does it all mean” moments that the world expects, nay, demands from a Braff movie.
In “Wish I was Here” Braff plays a guy who is what would kindly be described as a struggling actor. More accurately, he’s a long-term unemployed guy who occasionally shows up to be rejected at auditions. He’s married to Kate Hudson, who supports the family by doing data entry for the water department and has two kids, a daughter, tweener Grace, who’s really into their Jewish heritage and the younger one, Tucker, who’s into video games or something.
At the start of the movie, Braff finds out his father’s (played by Mandy Patinkin) cancer has returned and the end is getting close.
Braff’s character then embarks on one of those epic journeys of self-discovery that always follows along with dealing with the death or impending death of a loved one. His involves forging a stronger relationship with his own kids, reconnecting with his wife and reuniting his likely severely autistic brother (Josh Gad) with their dad before it’s too late.
The first act of “Wish I Was Here” is less than good. It’s really crude at times for unknown reasons. There’s a scene where Braff’s dad walks in on him giving himself the old low five, we get a nice shot of a dog peeing on a car for some reason.
Also, Braff’s character curses a lot in front of his still young kids. He does this the whole movie, but during an early breakfast scene it feels especially egregious and intentional. Mix all of that in with Braff’s bearded-over, greasy-haired look and he ends up coming across as sort of a giant messy dick for most of that first act.
In general, the movie just seems to be trying really hard to be funny and edgy at the start and as we all know from high school and bad sitcoms, once you start trying to do those things, the opposite instantly becomes true.
Once it gets into the “What does it all mean” stuff, which is Braff’s wheelhouse, things get a lot better.
There are really touching, heartbreaking scenes between Braff and his dad, Braff and the kids and Hudson and her father-in-law. Hell, even Josh Gad gets himself a nice tender moment right near the end.
Right around the same time it finds its heart, the movie also finally hits a nice little groove with the comedy stuff. One of the highlights is Braff’s first wildly unsuccessful foray into homeschooling his kids.
In terms of the story, “Wish I Was Here” loses track of a few of its plot points for a bit there. One is the father’s dog, who - for reasons that aren’t ever explained – everyone vehemently hates and refuses to take care of. The dog’s in the beginning and then vanishes for most of the movie until swooping out of nowhere near the end, only to vanish again.
More importantly than the dog, there’s an emotional scene on a beach where Kate Hudson tells Braff she’s tired of sacrificing her dreams and carrying the financial burden of the family all by herself just so he can try and fail to live his. This is a huge moment. Then we find out the dad’s sick and it, like the dog, vanishes.
I get the idea that there are bigger battles to fight, but still, there’s a part two to this conversation that deserved to have been had at some point during this movie.
If the reason we didn’t get the rest of that conversation was because of concerns about the run time of the movie, we probably could have done without … pretty much all of Josh Gad. Sorry, Gad is funny, but watching him make a spaceman costume so he can bang Ashley Greene at ComicCon is so far removed from what’s important in this movie that, if you listen closely during those scenes, you can almost hear the ghosts of editors past whispering “Deleted Scenes.”
The cast is mostly good. Braff and Hudson succeed on their own, but they don’t have much chemistry together. Mandy Patinkin is fantastic as the dad. Joey King is really good as the daughter, the boy is so-so. Also, Braff gets a good number of his TV friends to stop by in small cameos, so that’s fun.
I feel like I spent a lot of time saying why the movie’s not any good, but it is good. It might have benefited from a script polish or two, but there’s a lot of funny stuff going on and the father-son stuff is incredibly moving at times.
And look at that. All the way to the end without saying “Wish I Was Here” wasn’t as good as that New Jersey movie and … I am shame-faced. I was so close too.