Often, when an artist receives a lot of praise or success from their first effort, whether it’s a book, play, movie or music, they simply don’t know how to handle it. A writer who receives praise might write an incredibly self-indulgent second title. Or they may never write another book and become somewhat of a recluse. The creator of a television show might try to create multiple spinoffs, none of which work. Or they may create a second season that is ultimately unsatisfying. And movie directors often have trouble finding the same rhythm and subject matter that made their first film so successful.
It has been ten years since Zach Braff’s first film “Garden State”, a critically applauded, well-loved film. Since then, the television show “Scrubs”, which helped to bring him to the public eye ended, and he has appeared as a lead in one other film. He has made some appearances on other television shows and taken smaller roles in other people’s films, but he’s either very choosy or he’s very choosy.
Last year, Braff decided to raise money for his new film “Wish I Were Here” on Kickstarter. It was a very successful campaign and gave him the funds he needed to make this new film his way. But “Wish I Were Here” is definitely a case of ‘Sophomore Slump’; the story, the acting, the writing, the directing all lack the freshness, the almost effortless ability to capture the thoughts and emotions of a group of people you feel could be real. In fact, there seems to be an almost conscious effort to make a “film with a message” which comes across as stagey, artificial and unoriginal.
Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a struggling actor who carts his kids, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King), off to their Hebrew Academy before attending endless auditions. Sarah (Kate Hudson) works a meaningless, mind-numbing job at the Water Company, entering figures into a spreadsheet while dealing with inappropriate sexual innuendo from her male cubicle-mate. Aidan’s dad, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) is late with the payment for the Hebrew Academy, prompting Aidan to visit him. Gabe drops a bombshell – his cancer is back and he is going to try an experimental treatment which is very expensive so he can’t pay for the kids’ expensive school anymore. Aidan is approaching the edge; he can’t find a job, his brother (Josh Gad) seems to have holed himself up in a rundown trailer in Malibu, trying to make a living as a blogger, and his kids are getting kicked out of school. Aidan decides to homeschool Grace and Tucker. He seems to finally realize that no one is happy and decides to use the money from a large ‘swear jar’ to help everyone in the family have a good summer, a few memorable moments, and become better people because of it.
Braff wrote, directed and starred in this film, repeating the three roles he had on “Garden State”. But the two films are almost polar opposites. I have nothing against triple-hyphenates as long as they either have the skills to self-edit or they have someone around to help them self-edit. Maybe that is the difference between the two films. On “Garden State” someone (a producer? The studio?) was able to tell Braff when something worked and when it didn’t. Maybe, because “Wish I Was Here” was funded on Kickstarter, and is a relatively low-budget film, no one cared if Braff took the story to unnaturally earnest and trying places.
Braff went the Kickstarter route because he wanted to make the film he wanted, in the way he wanted. He didn’t want a studio or producer to tell him “No, you can’t do that” or “You have to shoot in Vancouver”. But these reasons are actually perplexing to me. He really needed someone around who could be the voice of reason, who could tell him “No”. Also, because the film was funded with Kickstarter, the budget was low. The film cost $6 million dollars. Does it make sense to shoot a film like this in Los Angeles simply because you want to be in Los Angeles? Shooting in Vancouver would have saved the production a lot of money, money that could be pumped back into the production. Don’t get me wrong. I live in L.A. and want every film to shoot in L.A.. Every “Avengers”, every “Transformers”, every “Planet of the Apes” – these big-budget films need to be here to employ thousands of skilled tradespeople, pumping money into the local economy. But to make a conscious decision to to film in L.A., budget be damned, seems selfish on such a low-budget film, especially when Joe Everyman is providing the money.
You can tell something is wrong from simply watching the trailer. There are way too many slow-mo shots of kids running down streets, other kids jumping into pools, people surfing. And Braff’s dialogue seems too ‘right’, too on-the-nose, as though someone spent days, weeks, months making sure every word is simply perfect. No real person speaks like Braff’s Aidan does in the trailer. Yes, a good screenwriter will agonize for weeks and months over every word, making sure they are perfect. But then the director and actors will hopefully work to make the delivery of these lines seem more natural, maybe a pause or stumble here and there, maybe they say the wrong thing and then correct themselves. When every word sounds perfect and is delivered in such a precise way, it sounds like an overblown thespian on a stage shouting his lines as he teaches us about “Acting!”
And when the film started, these fears were not challenged or assuaged. Aidan speaks in a slow, measured manner, throughout the film, which almost seems condescending. It is a strange thing, but he seems like he is always trying to pronounce everything in a very precise way, to make sure his kids understand him. But because he speaks in this way all the time, he seems to be making sure EVERYONE understands him. And because he is the lead character, and our entry into the film, he is also trying to make sure we understand him. Because he isn’t presenting an extraordinarily difficult narrative, is he trying to make sure we understand how great his writing is?
Aidan is at a crossroads in his life and dealing with a lot of issues. More than most? No. Does he elevate the narrative to make it more interesting? Not really. He tries. He tries really hard. And all of this ‘earnestness’ is evident in every frame of the film, making it an unnatural experience. There are some nice sight gags and visual puns, to help make the narrative more lively, but these are all revealed in trailer and don’t really help when you are watching the film.
Kate Hudson does a better job of making Sarah real. She has the same ‘perfect’ dialogue, but her delivery helps to make it more believable. At one point, she is talking with Gabe, trying to get him to make amends with his sons. It is the type of dialogue that over-excited theater students like to use for their big audition, a monologue rife with emotion, but Hudson manages to make it more quiet, more interesting and realistic. Her facial expressions and eyes help to make Sarah seem like a real woman who simply lucked into a moment of insight.
Joey King is pretty good as Grace, Aidan and Sarah’s older daughter. Because of her years at the Hebrew Academy, she is a very conservative young girl and particularly conflicted when she learns she is going to have to go to a normal school with a neighborhood boy that she likes. It is nice to see her come out of her shell as Aidan tries to coax his daughter to live her childhood.
Mandy Patinkin plays Gabe, Aiden’s dad who has bad news. Because his cancer is back, he is clearly dying and a film like this would not be a film like this unless he actually dies. Anyone who has ever seen a film before should be able to see this coming so it really isn’t a surprise. And the father’s death forces another plot point which will come as no surprise. It also forces Aidan to sit at his side, talk about ice cream and look both remorseful and regretful.
Jim Parsons (TV’s “The Big Bang Theory”, HBO’s “The Normal Heart”) has an extended cameo as a fellow actor Aidan meets at an audition. It honestly seems like they were given five minutes (according to an interview with Braff, it was one day) to shoot his lines, because they seem unnatural and stilted.
Donald Faison, Braff’s co-star on “Scrubs”, also has an extended cameo. He plays an Aston Martin salesman who allows Aidan and his kids to take a convertible for a test drive. Next thing you know, they are driving down the coast from Malibu towards Santa Monica. That is some test drive! Beverly Hills to Malibu to Santa Monica, just the four of them, Aidan, his kids and the Aston Martin salesman.
Then, there is the Swear Jar. This is the type of artificial contrivance usually reserved for television. “Wish” opens with the family having breakfast. Aidan swears and Tucker, who like every kid his age is fascinated with the rules, announces his dad needs to put money in the Swear Jar, a large glass jar sitting on top of the refrigerator. When Aidan decides to start doing good, fun things with his family, he grabs the jar and starts to carry it around, using it to pay for their adventures. You see, it is a ‘symbol’ of their old life allowing them to have new, good adventures in their new life. I mean, who carries around a HUGE jar filled with coins and paper money? It must weigh a ton and it would make more sense to cash all of it in and pay for their adventures with paper money, as they go. But Braff wants us to constantly remember how poor they are, how lower-middle-class. Because if we forget that, the film wouldn’t be as meaningful. So they need to carry the jar around at all times.
Strangely, when Aidan decides the family needs to start having fun, he sends Sarah off for a Spa Day. Alone. He and the kids take off and go camping. Apparently, they can’t have fun together. At the end of the film, she also spends some time surfing, a long-lost past time. Again, alone.
And this is the problem with “Wish I Were Here”. Everything is so obvious, so on-the-nose, so superficial. Braff wants us to think he is making a meaningful, insightful movie. But he never reaches beyond the “cable movie” restrictions of the subject matter.