“You’re going to have sex with the swear jar?”
It’s impossible to talk about Zach Braff‘s Wish I Was Here without first addressing the elephant in the room: Kickstarter. Whether you’re against his method of crowdsourcing because you believe a celebrity of his stature shouldn’t need extra funding to finance a film or steadfast in the true notion that his fandom actually brought new members to the website who subsequently spent money on other projects, the backstory will play a role in your perception of the finished work. As a willing backer reconciling the need to also be objectively subjective in reviewing the film, I’m uniquely cognizant of this inevitability. My enjoyment or dislike aside, however, I feel we should all support artists willing to weather the backlash of knee-jerk, misinformed commentators in order to bring their visions to fruition with passion, integrity, and love.
Above all else, this is what Braff has done. He got lucky ten years ago on Garden State because an arts benefactor cut him a check to run wild and bring to life a work that spoke to a generation of twenty-somethings with humor and honesty. Its success raised the bar as far as quality went for a follow-up and it gave him a taste of creative control few directors are afforded. So he bided his time, finished “Scrubs”, embraced the stage, and landed the odd Hollywood role to keep his celebrity in the public’s consciousness until the opportunity came. Sadly reality proved he might never have such artistic power on a film set again. Studios wanted final cut, big name stars, and who knows what else. But the Veronica Mars movie came to show Braff another way.
Three million plus dollars from 46,520 backers later and the decade-long wait was over. Zach and brother Adam J. Braff‘s personal script was given life without compromise (thanks also to a matching funds deal from Focus Features). Friends like Donald Faison, Jim Parsons, and Michael Weston could come aboard with a phone call; a major thread of Judaism could exist without potential bottom-liners’ interfering notes calling it “too religious”; and the authentic defiance of adults and kids alike living inside a world of hardship and struggle could retain enough warranted profanity to earn itself an R-rating. And in an industry desperate to slash foreign-language exposition, pare down explicit material for PG-13 breadth, and plaster A-list celebs on the poster, Wish I Was Here became a resounding success for twenty-first century filmmaking before cameras even began rolling.
It’s a more mature work than Garden State—one by an artist who has obviously honed his craft and grown in life experience. There’s still some quirk that at times devolves into tonally out-of-place comedic pratfalls taking you out of the otherwise naturalistic drama; the soundtrack is still chock full of über hipster rock ‘n’ roll (and a well-placed Paul Simon track); and the notion of life surviving despite mortality exists at the back of every scene, but Braff’s voice is more secure in bringing everything together. The problems faced here seem less idyllic in its adult world long past the post-collegiate malaise of Andrew Largeman and girlfriend Sam. Whereas they pretty much existed solely for themselves and grappled with what that meant, Wish I Was Here‘s Aidan (Braff) has a family he’s desperately trying to hold together.
There’s pure heart and soul in his accepting the inherent difficulties of parenting and how such a realization can help him forgive his father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) for any shortcomings. As he comes to terms with that notion, however, he’s also facing the fact his dream of becoming a working actor might be over. The film’s therefore a document of the next step on the evolutionary spectrum of human beings: coping with the truth that dreams must bend and compromise the instant we choose to marry and have kids. Children aren’t merely a box to check off along our journey through life: they are living, breathing creatures we must put aside selfish desires for in order to provide everything they deserve. Just as they grow and learn in their ever-changing places, so do we—forgiving, forgetting, and simply showing up.
The film is about family first and foremost along with the sacrifices made to sustain. Sometimes they are personal like Aidan embracing his role as father for the first time, homeschooling Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) after Gabe’s cancer treatment dries up the private tuition well. Other times professionally as with Aidan’s wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) taking the role of breadwinner by holding a data-entry job drowning her while he goes on auditions before coming home empty-handed. There’s the need for a dying man to put aside his old school fatherly ways of always expressing his disappointment so his loved ones can know the love he hides beneath and the strength of an emotionally stunted son (Aiden’s brother Noah played by Josh Gad) to feel the love only made possible by enduring pain.
As such there are some really powerful scenes providing a gut-punch of emotion whether Hudson and Patinkin talking about grief spawning wisdom, King and Gad discussing weighty issues of God and family, or Braff and Alexander Chaplin‘s Rabbi Rosenberg discerning where God exists for a non-believer looking to make sense of the chaos surrounding him. In this respect, even though Judaism plays a prominent role through a healthy dose of Hebrew and synagogues, the film never preaches. If anything it does its best to depict how we cope with loss and tragedy without faith existing as a safety net to fall back on. It shows we cannot always be heroes in the sense of grand gestures or cliché. Sometimes we’re simply the ones who try and fail, inevitably succeeding due to the courage of attempting heroics at all.
Braff touches on themes of parenting (without batting an eye at the frowned upon notions of exploiting our kids into doing chores or swearing in front of them because consistent honesty is always more important than half-hearted discipline), marriage (the complexity of compromise, love, and sensing each other’s unhappiness), and education (its myriad curriculum venues all needing a common endgame of teaching morality). There are fewer jokes merely added for laughs that don’t serve the plot as everything deals directly with the characters rallying around Gabe’s illness to finally wake up to their own depleting lifespans. In the end we are only the things we’ve done and those we haven’t. Life becomes deciding whether you’ll choose to be present during the tough times or in a constant state of regret about what could have been.
Rating: R | Runtime: 120 minutes | Release Date: July 18th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Focus Features
Director(s): Zach Braff
Writer(s): Adam J. Braff & Zach Braff