Years 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).
So 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.