January 28, 2014



Zach Braff’s WISH I WAS HERE, his first film as a writer-director since Garden State 10 years ago, mixes genuine, deeply-felt emotion with the kind of contrivances that would grate even on a second-rate sitcom.  (This week’s episode:  Dad tries to homeschool the kids!  And Uncle Jonah wears a costume to Comic-Con just to impress a girl!)  The result is painfully uneven, and also a lesson that filmmakers should be careful about getting what they wish for.  Braff has said that the reason he raised a chunk of his budget through Kickstarter “investors” (they won’t really get any money back) was so that he could avoid any interference with the script he wrote with his brother Adam, but for all the slings and arrows that studio executives and producers take for their script notes, Wish I Was Here desperately needed a firm hand from someone before production began.

As in Garden State, Braff plays an actor (here named Aidan Bloom), but his alter ego here seems never to have had any success at all, with just a couple of forgotten commercials to his name.  The family lives on the income earned by Aidan’s wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) at her office job, although it’s Aidan’s father Saul (Mandy Patinkin) who pays for Aidan’s children Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) to attend yeshiva; Aidan is cynical about religion at best, as is Tucker, but Grace has embraced Orthodoxy to the point of not being able to hang around with friends in the neighborhood anymore.  Meanwhile, Aidan’s brother Jonah (Josh Gad) lives in a trailer and stares at a panel of computer screens, although it’s never clear whether that’s because he’s a slacker, a high-tech genius or both.  (Seriously, the script allows for all possibilities.)

The central crisis of the story arises when Saul, who has been ill before, reveals that his cancer has metastasized and that he’s using his remaining savings for longshot treatments, forcing Aidan not only to deal with his tangled feelings about his father, but also with the financial effect of losing Saul’s contribution to the family expenses.  He has to pull the kids out of Hebrew school, and since Aidan himself has a horror of the LA public school system (it’s never entirely clear why), he decides to homeschool them, while finally starting to question whether he can keep going out on fruitless auditions and letting his wife pay the bills.  In other words, like so many men-children in so many movies before him, Aidan has to begin to become an adult.

It says something about Braff (and his co-writer brother) that the best parts of Wish I Was Here are unquestionably when neither Aidan nor Jonah are on screen.  Patinkin, no surprise, is wonderful in a role that may very well have been written with him in mind, but Hudson is a terrific surprise, giving perhaps her best performance since the glory days of Almost Famous.  The two of them have a scene together toward the end that could make you believe you’re watching a genuinely first-rate film about recognizable human beings.

Unfortunately, this is Braff’s movie, and he’s not off camera very often.  His silly self-indulgence may be best illustrated by those homeschooling scenes, which begin as virtual slapstick–because even though we’re meant to take Aidan seriously as a character and as a father, apparently he would decide to educate his children with no preparation or knowledge about their studies, nor any ability to discipline them whatsoever.  Then, as a sign that Aidan is “maturing,” he continues not to teach them any academic subjects, but takes them on adventures and has them perform the chores he hasn’t done himself for years, apparently in a sincere attempt to make them better people.

That’s not even the worst of it; the movie’s nadir is probably its recurring motif of Aidan’s fantasies (which we see) where he imagines himself as a superhero, running through video game landscapes until he ultimately reveals the face of his Darth Vader-like opponent, which is meant to be a psychologically meaningful moment.  Meanwhile, he completely disdains and ridicules Jonah’s sci-fi fandom whenever it comes up–an inconsistency that would be fine if Braff acknowledged and explained it in terms of Aidan’s character, but instead he ignores that it exists.

Braff isn’t an untalented director.  As noted, he gets great performances from Patinkin and Hudson, and strong work from young Joey King as well.  (His own best scenes as an actor are with those three.)  Near the very end, Josh Gad has a few good moments too, although by then it’s too late because he’s been buried in what has all too quickly become the slovenly, whining yet kindhearted Josh Gad Part (it may have started with Love and Other Drugs), a typecasting he would be wise to get the hell away from quickly.  As in Garden State, Braff uses music effectively, although it’s doubtful the soundtrack this time will become the same kind of breakout hit.  (Even though cinematographer Lawrence Sher was also behind the camera for Garden State, Wish I Was Here is far less visually distinctive.)  But he seems incapable of resisting stupid plotting, as in a hostile work environment subplot he unnecessarily rolls out for Sarah, and extended sight gags like a rabbi on a Segway.

Wish I Was Here is sentimental enough and pleasant enough to entertain some audiences, but it’s a step backward for Zach Braff as a filmmaker.  Next time he should consider taking some notes instead of sidestepping them.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."