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Wish I Was Here

wish_i_was_hereDirected by Zach Braff
Starring Zach Braff, Mandy Patinkin, Kate Hudson, Josh Gad

A full decade after his first and, until now, only feature film as director, Zach Braff returns to familiar themes of doubt, regret and emotional redemption in Wish I Was Here. Yet while the strengths of his first film, Garden State, are still evident, even amplified, so too are the weaknesses, resulting in a film packed with strong moments and excellent performances that fails to soar.

Braff is Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor in his mid-30s who is committed to following his dream, even at the expense of his family, including wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) and children Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King). He can more or less keep things in balance as long as Sarah holds down an office gig  and his father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) keeps paying for the kids to attend private school (a Jewish private school – the film is quite strong when exploring contemporary American Jewish culture, incidentally) but when the spectre of terminal cancer forces Gabe to divert his funds to treatment, Aidan has to face the possibility that the clock has run out on his aspirations.

The film’s biggest problem is that it is just so ill-disciplined. Throughout his career as both an actor and director, Braff has worked to combine whimsy with earnest sentiment, but that’s a trick that requires an acute understanding of tone which he has apparently forgotten. Wish I Was Here switches gears so frequently and abruptly that it results in emotional whiplash. Braff and his co-writer (and brother) Adam take what could have been a strong ensemble comedy-drama and pepper it with ill-considered fantasy sequences and comedic non-sequiturs. An aged rabbi rides a Segway because, why not? The love interest of brilliant but shiftless brother Noah (Josh Gad) is into cosplay – isn’t that just delightful? Uh, no – not really.

For all that, there are elements that are just sublime – Mandy Patinkin’s turns as the dying, regretful family patriarch comes immediately to mind. There are little moments of humanity here and there that ring absolutely true and Braff’s ear for snappy, funny  dialogue is finely tuned. If only there had been another voice in the creative mix to draw out these qualities and curb his more indulgent sensibilities.

Braff is coming from such a personal, earnest place with this one that it’s hard to take him to task too harshly, but the experience of watching the film is akin to reading a high schooler’s poetry journal – at times it’s almost too embarrassingly personal and raw. Your capacity for to tolerate or empathise with that kind of mawkishness will go a long way to determining how you feel about Wish I Was Here.
Oh, and The Shins are on the soundtrack, but that should surprise no one.


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