Review by: Jarrett Leahy
Aiden Bloom, a husband and father of two, continues to doggedly pursue his dream of a career in Hollywood thanks to a very supportive wife and a father who is paying for the private education of his grandchildren. But as unexpected news of his father’s illness hits, this struggling actor suddenly realizes that perhaps his life’s dream may need altering.
Back in 2004, then Scrubs star Zach Braff came out with his feature directorial debut, Garden State, an amusing and very personal independent comedy starring Natalie Portman that found quite the cult following, as well as its fair share of detractors. I’m not ashamed to admit I love Garden State. LOVE IT! Over the last ten years, it has remained a movie I continue to return to with a nostalgic fervor, as each time it delivers the same laughs, comfort, and pleasant remembrances of the quirky world Braff so skillfully created. Over that same time period, my anticipation for an eventual follow-up to Garden State grew with each subsequent year. Finally, in April of 2013, word spread throughout various social media outlets that Braff was attempting to raise money on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter for a small passion project, co-written with his brother Adam, titled, Wish I Was Here. Within days, the fundraising campaign had reached its $2 million goal, eventually topping out at just over $3.1 million during the month-long donation drive, proving that, like myself, there were many other fans just as eagerly awaiting a new Braff creation.
Right from the film’s opening scenes, it’s quite obvious that Wish I Was Here, for better or worse, is very Jewish. For someone not of that faith, I must confess, at times, feeling like an outsider trying to discern the unfamiliar idiosyncrasies of that world. With a lead protagonist being a struggling actor at a life crossroad, Wish I Was Here’s similarities to Garden State are hard to ignore. While not an official continuation of the Garden State story, Braff, as screenwriter, re-examines many of the same narrative topics of his previous film, this time however with a less…idealistic viewpoint. As an actor, Braff’s range hasn’t evolved much over the years, as he continues to deliver varying versions of his onscreen Scrubs persona, Dr. J.D. Dorian. In Wish I Was Here, his portrayal of Aiden feels like a more jaded and worn-down version of Andrew Largeman, his protagonist in Garden State. Forced to face the reality that perhaps his dream of being an actor may not be what’s best for his family, there is an element of settling that some may find a bit disheartening. I, however, found this aspect of the story to be one of the more sincere moments of Wish I Was Here.
The most notable performance of Braff’s film comes from veteran actor Mandy Patinkin. Best known for his cult classic portrayal of Inigo Montoya in the 1987 action fantasy, The Princess Bride, Patinkin has since become a staple of the small screen, starring in such television hits as Chicago Hope, Criminal Minds, and Homeland. Playing Aiden’s father, Gabe Bloom, in only four days on set, Patinkin delivers a poignantly moving portrayal of a man nearing the end of his life. Delivered with an unvarnished honesty, Patinkin brings a candor to his performance that evokes true sentiment. Another surprisingly noteworthy portrayal comes from Kate Hudson. Since her Oscar-nominated role as Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe’s nostalgia masterpiece, Almost Famous, Hudson’s reliance on her name and pedigree has resulted in a blah career filled with a slew of vapid, forgettable rom-coms. It was rather refreshing, then, to see Hudson take, what looked to be on the surface, a pretty one-dimensional character and create a gentle, understated portrait that skillfully accentuated the performances of Braff, and Patinkin, along with Joey King and Pierce Gagnon, the two young actors cast to play their children, Grace and Tucker. While I won’t hold my breath, perhaps this performance will finally convince Hudson that she’s far more gifted as a supporting star than as a leading lady.
While attempting to characterize the type of movies he creates, it finally hit me that Zach Braff comes from the Cameron Crowe school of filmmaking. Like many of Crowe’s films, Braff’s latest creation is tender, sentimental, and a bit maudlin at times, certainly not for the derisive moviegoer. Touching on an assortment of weighty subject matter including religion, family and the difficulties of parenthood, career dreams vs. life realities, and the growing uncertainties surrounding the impending death of a parent, Wish I Was Here almost feels like a cinematic representation of a mid-life crisis. I must admit being less than enamored with the first half of the movie, for at times I found it to be almost too personal and Judaistic. By the end, however, the overall heartfelt sincerity of what Braff was trying to convey eventually prevailed, thanks in large part to the notable contributions of acting veteran Mandy Patinkin. While certainly no Garden State, Wish I Was Here demonstrates Braff’s ability to examine life’s more emotional subject matter with a genuine sentimentality few have the mettle to attempt these days.-JL