WISH I WAS HERE is an interesting film to come from Zach Braff as his sophomore feature, especially when we consider the cast is comprised of, among others, a flying monkey, a china doll and a talking snowman. The last time we saw writer/director Braff was with his breakout feature, “Garden State” which dealt with family loss, estrangement and thematics from the perspective of a 20-something mind. Now, with WISH I WAS HERE, Braff takes a look at life, loss, family, mid-life crisis and responsibility through the eyes of a 35-year old. And although there is an unevenness to the story in terms of pacing and thematic elements, Braff hits some emotional highs but truly excels with not only his casting, but the technical elements and considerations, most notably Lawrence Sher’s cinematography.
Aidan Bloom is a struggling “wannabe” actor; one of those “can’t get a real job in case a casting call comes in” types, something that doesn’t bode well with a wife, two children and a mortgage. Married to the ever-supportive Sarah, who is not only the breadwinner for the family but full-time mom when she wraps her 9-5 job, they have two kids; the precocious, obsessive pre-teen Grace and the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants normal 6-year old Tucker. Fearful of public education thanks to his own bad memories, Aidan has the kids enrolled in an exorbitantly priced yeshiva school, the tuition for which is being willingly paid by Aidan’s father, Gabe, as a means to try and bring his grandchildren back to the faith their father abandoned. Unfortunately, Gabe is facing a recurrence of cancer and in a last-ditch effort to prolong his life, has taken his life savings to pay for an experimental medical treatment. As a result, he can no longer pay for Tucker and Grace’s tuition.
With Aidan more concerned about himself than his father, Grace throwing tantrums about leaving her friends and going to public school, Aidan refusing to allow his kids to attend public school, Sarah at wits end over a bland marriage and miserable job, and family battles raging about money, the family is in complete disarray; especially when Aidan decides to home school Grace and Tucker.
Throughout WISH I WAS HERE, one can’t help but get the sense that Zach Braff is trying to be Ray Romano; not that it's a bad thing, but it felt stale, not fresh or original and he didn’t pull it off. Exploiting the forced story ideas that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, Braff stuffs Aidan full of hapless negativity and selfish fantasy for the first two-thirds of the film almost to the point of alienating the audience. However, in the third act as the father-child relationship on multiple generational levels “comes of age” and grows, Braff shifts his performance tone into something likeable, encouraging and hopeful, lifting the spectre of doom.
The real stand-out is Braff’s “Oz the Great and Powerful” voice cast mate, Joey King. As Grace, King delivers the truest and most emotionally complex character tapping into Grace’s rigid religious devotion and in the exploration of a 12 year old finding herself. King's Grace illuminates the story and provides the more mature grounding that Braff's Aidan lacks. The ebullient joy that she brings to Grace after defiantly shaving her head, buying her multi-colored wigs, flying into the pool or standing on a mountain top in the desert, makes the spirit soar just watching her. It's King who is the touchstone for the audience. Although Braff's Aidan is going through his own crisis of conscience as a man, a provider, a parent, an adult, and child himself, Grace is the character whose growth is easier to chart and understand.
Talk about a big surprise - Kate Hudson. She actually acts in this film and doesn't just make her generationally recognizable pouty face and sunny smile. As Sarah, Hudson resonates as a frustrated wife, mother and breadwinner, tapping into the same emotions so many women feel today. Particularly effective and telling is one hospital-based scene between Sarah and Gabe. Hudson and Mandy Patinkin deliver just the right amount of heartfelt poignancy, giving weight to one of the film’s more powerful lines about Sarah as the family matriarch. Hudson’s performances embodies the very essence of the term.
As Aidan’s beyond weird but genius brother Noah with more father issues than Aidan, Josh Gad while nothing exceptional, more than adequately provides the angst of sibling rivalry and parental favoritism, while showing us a man with a bruised heart, covering up his sadness and hurt with flippancy and withdrawal into the one thing that gives him joy and peace.
Sadly, Mandy Patinkin feels totally out of place in this cast as a whole. However, despite that disjointed disconnect, Patinkin infuses Gabe with an emotional and almost poetic essence, and together with Joey King, provides the connective tissue of the generations and of their faith. The on-screen chemistry between the two is intense, tender and loving. Equally poignant are several scenes between Patinkin and Hudson.
And I’ve got to say it, I am in love with Pierce Gagnon. He steals the scenes and your heart as Tucker. From tormenting Grace to doing everything sneaky and potentially bad that a 6-year old can do - especially with an electric drill - Gagnon is charmingly hysterical! And a grin that lights up the sky with mischief. If you’re gonna have a 6-year old, this is the one to have.
Nice little cameos also come from James Avery, Jim Parsons, Donald Faison.
Written by Braff and his brother Adam, story elements and construct of WISH I WAS HERE are hit and miss. While easy to see the story is a very personal one, the Braff boys go too far with the religious aspect of the film to the point of being almost too in your face, losing the lighter touch of bringing faith into a film without hitting the audience over the head with it. Disastrous is that Braff almost makes a mockery out of the elder Rabbi.
While I understand that parenthood/childhood provide a wealth of juggling at every given moment of a day, and more than enough fuel for fodder in a script, the story and the obstacles to Aidan's life within the context of WISH I WAS HERE felt like it had no direction leading to hit and miss storytelling. Do we talk about religion, do we talk about death and mortality, do we talk about siblings, parent-child, school, money, work, acting, disappointment, lack of sex life? Yes, everyone's life is a plate so full even Auntie Mame would have trouble balancing it all, but for purposes of story and film, the script should have been more judiciously narrowed and honed, providing more focus for the audience instead of what often feels like a haphazard mess. As with Aidan Bloom himself, being present and in the moment is the reason to WISH I WAS HERE. Replete throughout the film are also fantasy sequences involving Aidan that although effective, should have been sparser in number as well as more judiciously placed so as not to disrupt the emotional beats.
Introducing a sub-plot of sexual harassment for Sarah in the workplace just drops like a lead balloon. Comes out of nowhere. And although Braff does bring it full circle with a meager message at the end, it doesn't fit the dynamic of the family or the film. There are other ways he could have achieved the same result. It's just another element of the script that feels scattered. Also short shrifted and glossed over is the whole home schooling issue. In this day and age of poor educational choices and a lackluster educational system, while some families may think home schooling is the answer, it's not as easy as just saying, "I'm home schooling my child" and boom it's done. A little more depth would have been the more responsible way to go as a storyteller. However, undisputably some of the high points of WISH I WAS HERE one of the high points of the film from story construct and visuals involves babysitter Noah duct taping Grace and Tucker to chairs
Where Braff truly excels is from a technical directorial standpoint, particularly with his cinematographer Lawrence Sher. Visuals are crisp, saturated, colorful. Framing is always slightly off center serving as a wonderful metaphor to Aidan's life being slightly askew. Gorgeous are the sunset desert scenes and the Santa Monica pier at night; the money shots of the film with each more beautiful and ethereal than the last. Editing is tight. Pacing is well timed and even. I would watch the film again just for the visuals (and Joey King and Pierce Gagnon)!
Exemplary is Rob Simonsen's minimal scoring that is well blended with the individual tracks that pepper the film.
Directed by Zach Braff
Written by Zach Braff and Adam Braff
Cast: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Joey King, Josh Gad, Mandy Patinkin, Pierce Gagnon