Wish I Was Here (2014)

Wish I Was Here

Scrubs’ and Garden State’s Zack Braff stars in a tear-jerking comedy which shows that trying to follow your dreams and coming to terms with real life may not be incompatible after all.

Wish I Was Here

Mr Nice by Alexa Dalby

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

There’s no doubt Wish I Was Here is a sincere and heartfelt film. It owes its existence to innovative crowdfunding finance ($3 million raised in just two days from 47,000 people), and it’s clearly a labour of love for screenwriter (with his brother)/director/star Zack Braff. The result is a Marmite film that’s on the surface an indie movie, yet which has sentimental big-studio-driven overtones. Some audiences will love its transcendent take on life; others may find it cloying.

On the comedy side, it’s full of quirky, but telling, details, humorous oddities and eccentricities, and it has more than its fair share of genuinely funny lines. Braff plays out-of-work actor Aidan Bloom, who, though not an observant Jew himself, is dependent on his curmudgeonly father Gabe (a compelling Mandy Patinkin, Homeland) to pay his young son and daughter’s fees to attend a conservative Jewish religious school, overseen by a rabbi who looks like an Old Testament God yet finds amusement watching YouTube kitten videos.

Despite their apparently reduced circumstances, Aidan and his family live in a nice house with a swimming pool – though this may be explained by it being California, and anyway the pool is empty. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson, an underused foil for him) supports the family – and Aidan’s dream to be an actor – by working a dead-end data job for the Water Board. Aidan’s father learns he is dying from cancer and needs the school-fees money to fund alternative treatments. Aidan has to withdraw his children from school and rashly decides to home-school them (they know more than he does), whilst also going to auditions. Aidan and Sarah’s two cute kids are pre-teen Grace (an excellent Joey King), who’s deeply into Orthodox Judaism, and younger brother Tucker (Pierce Gagnon). Amid ridiculous mis-casting calls, there’s a low-key cameo from Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons as another unsuccessful actor. Aidan’s drop-out genius brother Noah (Josh Gad), a recluse who lives in a trailer overlooking the ocean, won’t help him support his dying father.

As the title implies, it’s a film about finding a connection with life. Comedy is mixed with tears more than once as lessons are learnt. When Grace shaves her head as a misguided and quickly regretted expression of her Orthodoxy, Aidan lets her choose a shocking-purple wig to symbolise her new identity. He stands up to the workmate sexually harassing Sarah. In a meaningful scene, Aidan and Tucker clean the pool and build a fence while Grace reads an appropriate Robert Frost poem to them. And in the end, when faced with life and death and big decisions, everyone finds their essential goodness. Aidan takes the children on a road trip into the desert where they experience an epiphany at sunset on the rocks looking over Los Angeles miles below. Aidan’s dying father and Sarah have a twinkly eyed (him) and tearful (her) conversation over his hospital bed that communicates to the heart of things. And Noah finally makes contact with his father at his deathbed – albeit straight from Comic-Con and still in fancy dress.

A recurring fantasy sequence of Aidan and Noah dressed as spacemen playing a childhood video game shows them pretending to be heroes. Ultimately everyone becomes a real hero in their own way. Aidan faces reality and moves forward. Noah rejoins the human race. Grace liberates herself by learning to swim. Sarah rejoices in the freedom to surf again. Grace and Tucker start at public school and it’s not as bad as they feared.

Even playing a character, Zack Braff is someone who can’t not be nice. In fact, deep down, everyone in this film is nice. Life is nice. It has poems and fireflies and the ocean and lots of indie music on the soundtrack explaining what’s happening. On television, it might have been a successful series, maybe a sitcom. But although the film has thoughtful things to say about life and the importance of family, and overall is funny and enjoyable, it seems self-indulgently prolonged, and the Comic-Con sequences seem tagged on. In the end, everything turns out for the best. If it had done so half an hour earlier that would have been even better.

Wish I Was Here is released on 19th September 2014 in the UK

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