Director: Zach Braff
Starring: Zach Braff, Joey King, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Pierce Gagnon
Zach Braff hasn't directed a cinematic feature since Garden State in 2004. That movie is held by many to be a bit of a masterpiece, a modern cult classic that veered away from Hollywood mainstream and became something greater. I had high hopes that ten years later Braff could deliver the same kind of magic, a story that spoke to us because it was weirdly honest and believably abnormal. Watching the trailer, I got the feeling that we were in for something spectacular, a movie on the level of Little Miss Sunshine, a film that was something more than what it appeared. I guess, since those are both 5-star movies in my book, that was a pretty high standard to judge this film by and perhaps I was setting myself up for disappointment. But it's not my job to produce quality cinema; it's my job to critique it.
Aidan Bloom is a man in crisis. He's an actor who can't find a job, a husband who can't support his family, a father who doesn't know how to raise his kids, a son of a disappointed father, a brother to a hermit, and a lost soul in general. When his father begins to die of cancer and can't pay for the Bloom children to go to Hebrew school anymore, Aidan begins to teach the kids at school, a task he's nowhere near capable of. What can a man who has no idea what he's doing in life share with his children but disappointment and regret, two things the Bloom men have always specialized in. Aidan's wife is unhappy, his brother is trying hard to ignore life, his kids are confused, his house is falling apart, his father's dog is peeing everywhere; it's a tough month in his life. To get through it he'll have to examine his choices and cling to the only thing that's never abandoned him; his family.
Let's start with the negatives, just for fun. This isn't Garden State. And it isn't Little Miss Sunshine. You get the feeling that it was almost there, that it has a lot of the same ingredients, but that the finished product just didn't turn out the way it could have. Those movies make you both very sad & very happy at the same time, leave you feeling as if you learned something about yourself, get you in a soft spot that you usually keep hardened against the world. Wish I Was Here couldn't quite reach that level. It was more depressing than forcefully introspective, more tiring than uplifting. Regardless of the ending, the movie as a whole felt a little pointless and undirected, a little like a runaway story that Braff couldn't get under control. That's his fault as a director, but as an actor he failed as well. Not once did he convince me that he was a father. Not once did his family seem real or loving. With Kate Hudson as the mother maybe no family can feel authentic, and this one definitely didn't, making the plot seem way too much like fiction.
There just wasn't enough believability, enough heart. It was too scripted and too unrealistic, from the family dynamic to the swear jar. Maybe Braff should have been a bumbling uncle, maybe that would have felt better, because he played the loving father very poorly. And the comedy didn't help. It actually took away from the feel I imagine the film was going for. It turned it juvenile instead of honest, like we were watching a bunch of kids trying to be adults. Now, some of the acting was very good and probably saved the movie. Mandy Patinkin of Inigo Montoya fame was excellent as the dying father, as was Joey King as the confused adolescent girl. She's a force to be reckoned with; keep an eye on her in the coming years. Kate Hudson was beautiful, of course, but she's not really believable as a human, so it's hard to see her as a hard-working mother. Everyone else did a fine job, no one was completely awful, the film itself just didn't coalesce into the shape I was hoping for. It wasn't real enough to make me applaud it and it was too depressing to love. It relied too heavily on standard movie tricks (metaphorical fantasies and church confessionals) and never became the film that it should have been. Was it horrendous? Not at all. Did it make me think & feel? Sure. But it wasn't great and I wanted it to be, leaving me let down when I should have been elated.
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