Wish I Was Here: Sundance Review

Wish I Was Here - H - 2014
Lawrence Sher
A more mature work from actor-director-producer Zach Braff that feels like a Garden State for grown-ups.

Zach Braff headlines a terrific cast that includes Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad and Joey King for his second outing as a director, 10 years after "Garden State."

Exactly 10 years after he premiered his directorial debut, Garden State, at Sundance, actor and now screenwriter-director-producer Zach Braff is back in Park City with Wish I Was Here.

Though in many ways a similarly quirky and touching film, with again an actor played by Braff in the lead and the death of a parent a major plot point, Wish I Was Here thankfully also feels like a more mature work that dares to tackle complex topics such as religion and God in the face of death and the cost, for a struggling actor who also has to support a family, of asserting the right to live a dream.

With a cast that includes Kate Hudson as the wife of Braff’s character, Mandy Patinkin as his ailing father and Josh Gad as his hermit-nerd brother, this funny and emotionally satisfying tale of thirtysomethings trying to come to terms with life itself could become a crossover hit, much like Garden State, especially if marketing folks manage to turn the film’s 46,520 Kickstarter backers into online apostles.

Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a struggling actor in L.A. whose last job, from a while back, was the “before guy” in a dandruff commercial. His wife, Sarah (Hudson) works in an office putting data into spreadsheets and essentially providing for their two kids, tomboyish teen Grace (Joey King) and her younger brother, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), as well as her husband, who keeps doing the audition rounds.

The fragile status quo of the family comes apart when the paterfamilias, Gabe (Patinkin), announces he can’t pay for his grandkids’ Jewish school tuition anymore because his cancer’s come back and he needs the money for an experimental treatment. This triggers both practical problems -- the kids need an education and Aidan refuses to send them to public school -- as well as more spiritual ones, especially after it becomes clear that Gabe’s got little time left.

The way in which the writer-director and his brother, Adam, who co-wrote the screenplay, deal with the domestic crisis is not unfamiliar light comedy terrain, with Aidan finally halfheartedly opting for home schooling (the reaction from Grace’s secret crush: "Are you Amish?" Her: "No, we’re Jewish.").

This decision is as much spurred by desperation as by the fact that Aidan’s Dad thinks his son should give up acting, the rabbi at school (Allan Rich) refuses to give the Blooms charity because actors should get a real job and even Sarah suggests it’s time for Aidan to take on at least part of the parenting duties since he’s at home more often. All of these equally depressing reasons, for Aidan at least, are given a scene or two, with especially the confrontation with the rabbi and the first day of home schooling getting big (albeit quite easy) laughs.

But there’s a more serious undertow, with the bacon cheeseburger-loving Aidan unwilling to give up his dream of becoming an actor and unsure how to face the imminent death of his father, who’s more religious, and how to explain it to his kids, who went to a yeshiva because their grandfather paid for it and who know 10 times more about being Jewish than Aidan does (another source of humor). This uncertainty is even more pronounced in the behavior of Aidan’s brother, Noah (Gad), a nerd who lives in a dark beachside trailer and who’s into computers, gadgets and costume play. Noah hasn’t spoken to his father, who thinks he’s a failure, for a year and uses the convenient distance that’s been created as a buffer zone against upcoming grief.

While the more serious spiritual exploration and the slightly exaggerated yet still recognizable drama and fun-and-games of a young father and his wife and children could have simply co-existed in the film, what makes Wish I Was Here an altogether more mature effort is Braff’s capacity to weld these elements together in a surprising yet very logical way: When things become too much to handle emotionally, Aidan occasionally retreats to a world he imagined as a 14-year-old, where he was a superhero spaceman who could save the planet. Staged like a low-rent but seamless fusion of Iron Man and Star Wars tropes, these short scenes work as spiritual epiphanies for the character without becoming overly maudlin or childish.

Braff essentially plays Aidan like a grown-up Large, from Garden State, which is fine, and he’s again surrounded himself with a wonderful cast of actors. Hudson, though in a supporting role, might be doing her finest work since Almost Famous. Her subplot involving harassment at work is played just right and her hospital scene with Patinkin is a true heartbreaker that showcases the capacity of both actors to suggest wells of unspoken emotion and years of pain and frustration as well as love. Similarly, Gad and King get one great scene together, a crucial phone call in which the humanity of both is pushed to the forefront. The late James Avery has a short and very funny cameo.

Shot in supple widescreen by Lawrence Sher, the $5 million dollar indie (with over $3 million coming from Kickstarter backers), is thankfully a smidgen less reliant on music than its predecessor and is almost perfectly executed in all technical areas.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Double Feature Films, Second Stix Films, Worldview Entertainment
Cast: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon 
Director: Zach Braff
Screenwriters: Adam Braff, Zach Braff
Producers: Stacey Sher, Michael Shamberg, Adam Braff, Zach Braff
Executive producers: Christopher Woodrow, Molly Conners, Maria Cestone, Sarah E. Johnson, Hoyt David Morgan
Director of photography: Lawrence Sher
Production designer: Tony Fanning
Music: Rob Simonsen
Costume designer: Betsy Heimann
Editor: Myron Kerstein
Sales: CAA/Wild Bunch
No rating, 114 minutes.