A movie can be an amazing thing, if done well. It can connect with us, reflect us, shape us. It can stay with us for as long as it takes for the lights to go up, or it can stick to us forever.
I’d like to begin this review with tossing out a big “FUCK YEAH!” to Zach Braff, because his sophomore film, Wish I Was Here, has not left my mind for the past week. Truthfully, it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I’ve already seen it twice, and I still feel as if I could watch it infinitely and never be bored.
Wish I Was Here is the Kickstarter-funded flick that Braff has been touting for the past couple of years. In truth, when Braff first put it out there, I considered backing it. I hate myself now for being a broke punk and not donating, despite my initial desire for the $40 t-shirt. The t-shirts are so nice. Is it too late, Zach?!
Re-reading over the Kickstarter page now, the dude makes an amazing pitch. Braff is a true, passionate filmmaker. Garden State is one of my favorites. Although it was made in 2004, it has a moody, 1990’s feeling, which I’m weirdly drawn to. All quirks and Manic Pixie Dream Girls aside, it is a movie that, if watched at the right time, it is extremely powerful, and can last, really, forever.
Braff insists that Wish I Was Here is “not a sequel in story [to Garden State], but it’s a continuation of the tone.” Wish I Was Here finds its leading man in Aidan Bloom, a thirty-year-old aspiring actor with a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and nothing to show for it. When his father’s cancer returns, Aidan’s spirituality is called into question, as well as his willingness to let go of his outdated dream.
Like Garden State’s Andrew Largeman, Aidan’s mother is deceased and his father is frustratingly difficult. Alternatively, Aidan is less introspective and technical — he’s emotional, but seemingly chooses to be ignorant to his own suffering. Braff is relatable in his numbness in Garden State; he is even more so in Wish I Was Here, with his fear of becoming the failure he already is.
Braff is pointed in his unsureness as an actor — each moment is authentically calculated, emotionally precise. He doesn’t shed a single tear in the entire movie, but his absent and devastated gaze packs an emotional punch. His balance of comedy and tragedy is so spot-on, it’s literally impossible to tell if you’re laughing or crying. He is the beating heart of this film.
Comedic moments and emotional moments are blended perfectly, allowing both elements to be completely flushed out in a scene before moving on to the next laugh or the next cry. With credits as writer, director, producer and star, Braff is the Lena Dunham of his wheelhouse. The film isn’t as dark as its tonal predecessor, and although the feel is similar, Wish I Was Here is more readily available — the characters are well-written and interesting from their very first scenes, and the desire to be self-righteously “indie” is conclusively absent.
As Aidan’s wife, Sarah, this is Kate Hudson’s best role in a long time. It’s a well-written female part, and her acting is choice. Particularly, a scene between Sarah and Aidan’s father, Gabe, is heartbreaking and a joy to watch. Mandy Patinkin gives a hearty performance as Gabe. Although his “critical dad” persona is more or less crushed during his saccharine, gooey death scene, the softness of his character is lovely, and ultimately the most tear-jerking.
Another gorgeous scene plays between Aidan’s precocious Jewish daughter, Grace (played effortlessly by Joey King) and his nerdy, certified Genius of a brother, Noah (a stunning Josh Gad). It is a moment of vulnerability so true and painful, it is almost hard to watch (but certainly worth it).
Wish I Was Here examines spirituality, but never questions religion. It instead focuses on believing in something in the face of self-doubt and grief. Aidan admits he doesn’t really identify as Jewish, and he isn’t sure he believes in God, but he does believe in infinity — the fact that the sky goes on forever. A super hip and well-spoken rabbi assures him that having faith in the conventional God that wants us to “be kosher” isn’t necessary; as long as we believe in something greater than us, like the infinite universe, it can give us hope and comfort. It’s a wonderful observation on spirituality and life, and gave me a perspective I’d never considered.
The film also impresses a belief in family, and being united in this strange group of people. The Bloom family struggles with being too supportive, being too critical, being too unhappy, being too optimistic. Their combined effort to keep it together as everything crumbles around them is admirable and idyllically beautiful.
Beneath the showy cameos and eccentricities, Wish I Was Here is an enormous movie, elevated by it’s fantasy but firmly grounded in its humbleness and gentleness. With the classic Braffian soundtrack, it is a tour de force and a film that could go on forever.