Sunday, July 13, 2014

REVIEW: "Wish I Was Here" - Small Moments on the Big Screen

Theatrical Release Poster

Wish I Was Here

Director: Zach Braff
Starring: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Ashley Greene, Donald Faison
Rating: R (language & brief nudity)
Opens: July 18

Distribution: Focus Features

Zach Braff wanted to tell a story - and he didn't want others to tell him how to tell it. Critical and commercial success as an actor, director, or screenwriter doesn't give a person much more control over outside forces.  If you're lucky, however, it does afford a bit more control over what YOU want to do - and you find people who want to help.

When faced with corporate influence in exchange for funding, Braff chose something different: crowdfunding through Kickstarter. The success of the campaign ($2 million raised in 3 days, $3,1 million total raised by over 46,000 people), brought Braff attention - and controversy.

The end result? Braff making the movie HE wanted.

Zach and his brother Adam wrote the screenplay for Wish I Was Here, follow-up to his directorial debut, Garden State, the 2004 indie film that focused on the foibles and fumbling of a twenty-something facing reality and confronting fears.

What happened to that man in his 20s? Well, this film doesn't answer that question, but rather feels like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" follow-up.

Braff plays Aiden Bloom, the 30-something husband to Sarah (Kate Hudson), father to Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and son of Saul (Mandy Patinkin).

He is also, to put it nicely, a little too comfortable in his arrested development as a struggling actor whose wife works a spirit-destroying job in a utility department to support her family - and whose dad pays for Yeshiva school for the kids. Aiden is scruffy, sarcastic and, you begin to suspect, a bit smelly.

Reality presents its bill to Aiden with unsuccessful auditions he can ignore, but school tuition he cannot. Confronting his father has an unexpected result, as he learns that it's HIS turn to be the patriarch. His father's cancer has returned and he can only care for himself - for as long as he can.

As Aiden, Braff struggles and swears and slips into fantasy, where he's a superhero searching for refuge, it seems. Asking his brother, Noah (Josh Gad), for help is frustrating and fruitless, as Noah escapes reality with help from the internet and cosplay.

We watch the family members react to the changes in their lives triggered by Saul's declining health and its consequences  - either rising to the challenge, rebelling against the reality through a series of memory-making adventures, or responding with love.

Focus Features

Those are the moments that will stay with you: the little moments that make you smile, shake your head and, maybe tear up just a little. Those sneak up on you, which is what good movies should do: find yourself drawn in to the story, caring what happens to these characters.

As patriarch Saul, Patinkin is at times so very vulnerable - yet equally brusque and disapproving. The most moving scenes feature him as the ailing grandfather to the old soul that is Grace.  Actress Joey King (Ramona in 2010's Ramona & Beezus) is remarkable in this film,  in both emotionally charged moments or  adolescent awkwardness.  King's talent is undeniable.

Performances by Emmy winner Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory, The Normal Heart), Ashley Greene, (Twilight), Donald Faison (Scrubs) complete a talented supporting cast,  all of them bringing a light touch in their usually comic scenes.

As husband and wife, Braff and Kate Hudson portray that 30-something couple who've come to terms with each other's faults - and stick around for the good, bad - and the ugly. Hudson's Sarah is likely a lot more patient than wives would be in her situation, but she makes it work.

Now, as to what doesn't work so well:

  • The fantasy sequences: the costumes for this and cosplay ARE Cool. The reason for the superhero scenes? Unclear. Metaphor or real-life childhood memory? Unsure. It's a distraction.
  • Language and brief bare bum scene: Being a 30-something guy who hasn't quite figured life out while everything is falling apart around him would be a reason to curse - and, on one occasion, relieve stress in a rather private way. The problem? The film is good, and kids in middle school would identify with the theme and the struggles of this family, because the real world is filled with middle-aged parents caught between raising their kids and caring for their parents. This family is worth watching on screen - but not everyone in your family can see it. 

Zach Braff fans will, I suspect, love this film - looking for those signs that Braff "gets" them - and knows what they like. The story is relatable to those of us in that "sandwich generation" - with just a few insights into Aidan's mind that we didn't necessarily need. (As was the case with Garden State soundtrack, Zach Braff chose artists and music for the film that resonate with him.) It works, completing the story he wanted to tell.

Grade: B

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