Wish I Was Here: Kickstarting Zach Braff

Zach Braff Wish I Was HereYears from now, it is entirely likely that the cinematic significance of Zach Braff’s second feature film, Wish I Was Here, will be based primarily on the manner in which it was funded. Unable to secure funding via traditional means, Braff launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised enough money in 48 hours to move ahead with production. In conjunction with the movie’s release, the writer/director/star has been making the publicity rounds over the past few weeks to describe how mainstream Hollywood refused to bankroll the movie because it did not fit neatly into a genre. The meta-narrative he has created about a director being true to his vision dovetails nicely with the on-screen story of Aidan Bloom, who is struggling to pursue his acting dream in the turbulent wake of reality.

This method of funding may well be a very significant thing. Time will tell. But I am more intrigued by something else that is becoming apparent about Zach Braff as an artist. I should admit that I have never been a particular fan. I was too old to have caught the Scrubs boat, though I can attest to the fact that some of the smarter twenty-somethings I know are huge fans of that long-running sitcom. And though I didn’t dislike his first movie, Garden State (2004), I was not as moved by it as many others were. There has been a lot of early discussion about the similarities between Garden State and Wish I Was Here – how they both concern struggling actors who seem lost. But I think there is something else that links these first two movies and it’s something that may signal big things to come from Braff.

Or it may not. Before I get to the linkage, let me polish off a quick review. Wish I Was Here is a very hit & miss affair. It does several things very well. It does other things… not so well. Braff is not a particularly gifted visual stylist. He mixes some truly involving images with the occasional unmotivated beauty shot and far too many Shot/Reverse Shot set-ups for his one-on-one dialogue scenes. In a movie seemingly concerned with relationships, it would be nice to see the characters interacting in the same shot more frequently. But this movie really isn’t all that concerned with relationships. It’s concerned with something else. Keep reading.

Also on the negative side of the ledger, the main female characters, Sarah Bloom (Kate Hudson) and Grace Bloom (Joey King), primarily exist to say necessary things to male characters at crucial moments, in much the same way that Natalie Portman’s Sam seemed to be able to tell Braff’s Andrew just what he needed to hear in Garden State. Furthermore, the overall plot is rather thin and predictable, and the incisiveness of character is similarly thin when held up against something like the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009).

Zach Braff Garden StateSo I must have hated this movie. Far from it. Because despite all these complaints, Wish I Was Here has a lot going for it. For one thing, it is very funny. It may not be as incisive as A Serious Man, but it is a lot more fun to watch. And if Braff isn’t a great visual stylist, he is very good with actors. The script may use Sarah and Grace in a contrived manner, but it also gives them good basic situations, and both Hudson and King do very well with the parts. Mandy Patinkin is outstanding as Gabe Bloom. All of the other actors, Braff included, perform well.

But here’s the best thing about Wish I Was Here, and possibly, about Braff himself. The movie is about something. Something that is difficult and meaningful in 2014. Garden State was also about something difficult and meaningful in 2004. It was about the over-medication of American young people that had been prevalent for at least ten years. So, even though I found it slow and almost morbid at times, and even though I kept wanting to see a movie about Peter Sarsgaard’s character Mark instead of one about Andrew, I found it compelling, and have remembered it through the years. Wish I Was Here is an adult coming-of-age story. In a sense, it’s about the Peter Pan Syndrome, and it is by no means the first movie to use this as a jumping-off point. But most of the other movies that have done this – from the original Arthur (1981) (produced around the time Dan Kiley published his book on the Peter Pan Syndrome) through whatever Dumb and Dumber incarnation we are on now – rely on broad comedy (and, not infrequently, on Adam Sandler). Wish I Was Here is a serious look at this topic. It is very poignant at times. So even though I think it is more concerned with its three male leads as individuals than with their various relationships, I find those individual situations worth examining.

Though I have never experienced it myself, I’ve been told that there was once a time when we lived in an adult-centric culture. When kids peeked down the hallway at their parents hosting cocktail parties and longed to be grown-ups. Of course, today every grown-up wants to be a kid and acts out that fantasy whenever possible. I’ll leave it to the psychologists and cultural historians to explain why. But I like the fact that Zach Braff is looking at this problem head on. I hope he will continue to grow as a director and continue to make movies that have actual dramatic issues at their core.

At the very least, he can put me down for fifty bucks on the next Kickstarter when he gets around to it.

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

6 thoughts on “Wish I Was Here: Kickstarting Zach Braff

  1. I’m not surprised to hear that Zach Braff’s latest offering is somewhat hollow. Though I’m a twenty-something with fond memories of the (first few) seasons of Scrubs, I intensely disliked Garden State thanks to the deliberate oversimplification of the female lead. It irritated me enough 10 years ago at the age of 13 that I KNOW I wouldn’t be able to stomach the reverse feminism present in Wish I Was Here. However, the Peter Pan syndrome bit was interesting — I actually had to look up the phrase as I’ve never heard it before (or I just wasn’t paying attention). It doesn’t describe most of the 20-somethings I know; anyone who has to move back in with their parents after graduation feels acute shame. Still, I’ll admit that there’s a certain reluctance when it comes to “growing up and getting a job.” First of all, it’s much harder to do than it used to be, and second of all, following the old formula doesn’t seem to make a lot of people very happy. If you’re unhappy doing “something,” who’s to say you won’t be happier doing “nothing”?

    • I can understand your feelings about Garden State, and I think you would find a very similar issue with the female characters in Wish I Was Here. The maddening thing is that he sets up very good situations for those characters, but when the time comes to complete their subplots, he abandons them, and has them function as cogs in the male characters’ journeys. But I keep reminding myself that although he has been around forever, and though he rubs some people the wrong way, Braff is still a young man, and a very young filmmaker. Blending multiple distinct characters into a coherent plot is a difficult task, and even a director like Jean Renoir, maybe the best ever at doing so, didn’t come out of the gates fully formed. So I’m willing to give Braff some more time. I don’t think he will ever be at the level of Asghar Farhadi, who does this better than anyone else today, but I think he has the opportunity to grow a lot. Thanks for weighing in.

  2. Intriguing article, Jon. Kickstarter definitely has made an impact on the filmmaking world, and Braff’s work is evidence of this. I’ve never been much of a Braff fan myself–I always found Scrubs too glib–but it does show that one person’s “vision” can be realized nontraditionally. I’m also interested in your assessment of A Serious Man; I found it an incredibly frustrating movie … except for the brilliant opening scene surrounding the appearance of a dybbuk. Gosh, I wish the Coen Brothers stuck with that!

    • Frustrating is a very good word for Serious Man, Simon. I didn’t especially like it when I watched it, but I have to admit that images, scenes, and ideas from the movie have stayed with me to this day, and so something about it touched me in a way many movies do not. To me, Braff isn’t at that level, but it’s still early. I give him credit for trying.

  3. I never watched ‘Scrubs’ either Jon, and though I didn’t mind ‘Garden State’, it was also mostly for Sarsgaard. To be honest, I would have had no interest whatsoever in this film, and despite your fair review making it sound worth watching, I can’t get remotely excited about it.

    As for kickstart funding, it is well-known here, in the world of small independent companies, and makers of short films. I am in two minds about it, as it is similar to ‘vanity publishing’. Pay for it yourself, get it made at your own cost, and all your friends and family think it’s wonderful. Occasionally, great work comes from this type of project, though probably not on this occasion.
    We recently chipped in, when our son was studying film-making at university, and helped to fund a short that was well-received. He got a degree in digital film production, but cannot get any work (so far). Braff did well to get the funding for a main stream film, so good luck to him. But he had a well-known face, and a good background in TV to trade on. Others possibly more talented, might not be so lucky.

    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. Based on my admittedly limited knowledge of your tastes, I suspect you would not care for Wish I Was Here. You might add it to your list, but at a pretty low priority.

      Kickstarter is a good idea and has had some good success, but it’s as prone to pitfalls as any other funding source. Braff has gotten a fair amount of bad press for not simply financing the movie himself, but I don’t begrudge anyone using whatever resources are available to them.

      I think the question that would be good to answer is whether something like this help or hurt other, lesser-known projects. The Kickstarter president said that Braff’s project created a halo effect which drew more people to the site and led to an increase in funding across the board. But, whether that’s true or not, we don’t have enough to data to know whether there is a halo effect, or whether high profile projects suck the oxygen from the smaller ones.

      Good luck to your son. I hope he gets the chance to make his own movies if that’s what he wants to do. I’d be very interested in seeing what stories comes from your family.

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