Zach Braff had a nice long run on the sitcom Scrubs, but he showed the world he was more than that by writing, directing and starring in the indie hit Garden State. Braff starred in some other movies but didn’t get much traction. He’s not really a leading-man type. He did have a nice supporting part in Oz the Great and Powerful, but Braff had already demonstrated he can do it all. Hollywood is not too friendly to original ideas, so Braff went to Kickstarter and had success. He asked for $2,000,000 and got $3,105,473 from 46,520 supporters. From there he got Hollywood money, and he has a movie.
Wish I Was Here starts with a typical suburban family arguing over breakfast. The head of the family, Aidan Bloom (Braff) is generally dissatisfied with many things. Soon we learn he’s not really head of the family. He’s an out-of-work actor who has to worry about his kids’ Hebrew school payments. Sarah Bloom (Kate Hudson) holds down the steady job. 12-year-old Grace Bloom (Joey King) cherishes her heritage much more than her younger brother and is mortified she might have to go to public school. It turns out the school is part of a deal he made with his dad, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin). Gabe was paying for the school because it was important to him, but he won’t be able to do it anymore, because something serious is happening that he needs to deal with.
The complexities and difficulties of everyday life are very much a part of the story. It handles the storytelling in a way that mixes the funny and the sad very effectively. All the best movies and books do this, because that’s how life tends to be, both happy and sad.
Noah Bloom (Josh Gad) doesn’t speak to his father because he’s a self-involved slacker who doesn’t want his disapproval. Sarah has a problem with her cubicle partner, who doesn’t understand that his chatter is highly inappropriate. Aidan’s auditions are routinely frustrating, but he makes friends with another even more hapless fellow actor, Paul (Jim Parson from Big Bang Theory).
One of the great things about having had a long-running series is he has lots of Hollywood friends who he clearly has called to help out. James Avery (the patriarch on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) shows up as one of the other actors at an audition, and it turns out to be his final role. Donald Faison, his co-star on Scrubs, shows up as a car salesman.
This feels like a very personal project for Braff, which was co-written with his brother. It’s hard to know what he sees in the struggle of this out-of-work actor who has real family problems, but he makes it compelling and riveting. The film is essentially a comedy with lots of existential angst. This is not Zach’s life, but it does feel like it’s close to him. The story takes many sad turns, but the overall pull of family is the central cement. All the family members get their own strong stories to tell. The reason Kate Hudson and Mandy Patinkin are on board is because the script gives them both strong parts. Finding the right balance between the comedy and real pathos is not easy, especially when it seems to be operating inside a situation comedy premise. The fact is that the family feels real and full of intelligence, especially the daughter. She is not a cookie-cutter teenager, but one who has her own sense of morals and integrity and often helps guide the family.
As the various story threads are resolved, some might have hoped for darker, crueler endings, but the happy hopeful tone at the end is totally fitting for the form. When things turn out for the best, we always say, “Oh, that’s only a movie.” But we really don’t want to see a sad ending to a story this involving. The story starts somewhat sad and continues through difficulties, but much is learned about the family pulling together.
I’d rather see something like this put together by a fledgling auteur than 90% of the committee-ruled swill that a Hollywood studio produces. It also benefits from being original premise and not a sequel to Garden State.