Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Film Review: Wish I Was Here

I should have posted this review much earlier, but I got sidetracked.

I am a huge fan of Zach Braff's first movie Garden State.  I thought it was smartly written and beautifully shot.  It had an angsty poetry to it that I really enjoyed.  I couldn't wait to see what he would do next.  But its been a decade and now Braff has brought to the big screen his follow up: Wish I Was Here.

Is it as good as Garden State?  No.

The movie is about Aiden Bloom (Braff), who like his character in Garden State is a struggling actor.  But like Braff himself, Bloom is 10 years older and the "struggling" part takes on a whole new meaning because he is married to a hard-working wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) and raising two kids: daughter Grace (Joey King) and son Tucker (Pierce Gagnon).  Because acting gigs are rare, he doesn't have the income necessary to send his kids to private Jewish school.  For that, he relies on his estranged father Gabe (Mandy Patinken) to foot the bill.  But then Gabe's cancer relapses and uses the kids school money on treatment.  This throws Aiden's life upside down, trying to figure out how to get his kids an education, connect to his dying father, try to get his younger screw-up brother Noah (Josh Gad) to help,   and keep his dream of being a professional actor alive.

The toughest part of the movie to watch is the first half, primarily because Aiden is incredibly selfish.  He is a father and he does want what's best for his kids, but he hasn't really grown up.  He whines and moans about his life like a spoiled child.  The film wisely does not make this complaining sympathetic.  When Aiden asks the head rabbi of the Yeshiva to be charitable and give his kids free tuition, the rabbi asks him why he doesn't get a paying job?  Aiden balks at this, but the rabbi's point is clear.

Even his wife Sarah seems caught up in a kind of "me-first" popular culture.  This is also horribly evident in Noah who lives in a trailer by the sea and wastes his life on the internet.

But one of the best things about the movie is the character Grace.  She loves the Yeshiva and is very devout to her Jewish faith.  Her parents don't know how to handle this.  Her mom tries to buy her trendy clothing, but she desires to be modest.  Grace tries to talk to her father about spiritual matters and he ignores her.  It's not that she is preternaturally saintly.  King plays her with all of the faults and insecurities of a young preteen girl.  But I was so impressed by the way Braff took her faith seriously.

This was especially important to me as someone who found himself being more religious than my parents.  Please don't misunderstand.  I am not saying that I was in any way better than them.  I am still in awe of all that they have done and still do.  It would be a miracle if I am half as good a parent as they them.  But there were many times I would argue with one of them for the Catholic faith that they raised me to believe.  Braff captured perfectly this awkward situation where the child is more knowledgable about the spiritual life, but the parent is still in charge of directing the child in life in general.

The second half of the movie is much better as Aiden slowly begins to grow up.  He begins to really assume the role of father in a wonderfully believable way.  Sarah also has an incredibly nice scene with Gabe where she speaks about the most important things we need to do before we die.  Hudson has shown some real maturity since her early rom-com days.  Patinken is fantastically understated as the dying Gabe.  He is stoic and passive-aggresive.  But there are wonderful moments where he shell slowly begins to break.

Gad's Noah is kind of a waste.   It's not that he is bad in the role, but the part has no depth to it.  He feels like an accessory to Aiden's story.  They even have a romantic subplot with Noah and his Cosplaying neighbor (Ashley Greene).  But it feels a bit too forced.  The narrative is also a bit choppy and episodic with no strong driving force forward.  For these reasons, it never reaches the level of Garden State.

But the movie works when its exploring the important things in life: faith and family.  Braff doesn't preach or act as if he has all the answers.  But he finds something beautiful in the embrace of these two treasures.  Even as his character struggles with giving up his dream of being an actor, he finds fulfillment in ways he never thought of.

And he accompanies this exploration with some fantastic visuals.  He makes the journey lyrical and beautiful.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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