Good luck exploring the infinite abyss again
by Thom Yee
I watched Garden State again last night. Written by, directed by and starring Zach Braff, Garden State told the story of Andrew Largeman, a young, minor celebrity actor who returns to his hometown for his mother’s funeral, whereupon he reunites with old friends and family, finds new (first?) love, and faces the demons of his youth. Over the last ten years it’s gained a reputation as perhaps the pre-eminent modern movie symbol of angst, unearned self pity, Peter Pan Syndrome, and, of course, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s also a movie I rag on a lot, but the truth is, up until just now, I really didn’t remember that much about it. I watched Garden State again last night, and y’know what? It was actually pretty good.
Garden State, the virtually forgotten The Last Kiss and now Wish I Was Here form Braff’s ode to young adulthood, from early 20’s all the way up to married with kids, and while the preceding volumes of this quasi-trilogy arrived fully formed, Wish I Was Here took a much more visible road in its production process. Beginning life as a Kickstarter campaign in early 2013, Wish I Was Here drew more than three million dollars in crowdfunding (on a $2 million dollar ask) despite the tacky, slimy and, yes, unearned flavour the entire enterprise left in many observers’ mouths. A rich movie star like Zach Braff should be able to finance his own movie, and if not, certainly he has the resources and connections to put together his own production without begging for funding from a cash-strapped, working-man populace, none of whom would see a thin dime from backing the proposed film. Or so goes the conventional wisdom at least. While I’m still a few credits shy from finally earning my Hollywood Upstairs Accounting diploma, I don’t literally know whether or not Zach Braff has enough money or knows the right people.
All I can say for sure is that, particularly in the shadow of its predecessors, Zach Braff could have and should have done a lot better than Wish I Was Here.
Aidan Bloom (Braff) is 35, married to a beautiful wife (Kate Hudson), and has two quirky, intelligent children. Aidan Bloom is also 35, reliant on his father (Mandy Patinkin) for money and his wife for household expenses, and is still struggling to find a meaningful role as an actor, a parent, and a person. When his father grows ill and is no longer able to pay for his children’s private schooling, Aidan is forced to take control of his family and finally find meaning in his life.
Where Garden State can be seen as laying the blame on our parents, Wish I Was Here leans much more heavily on the side of how hard it is to be a parent. The premise calls for Aidan to home school his children after losing his father’s financial support — giving him the opportunity to grow closer to his children and his own sense of existence — while also trying to ease his father’s last days on Earth — a father who’s never supported his son’s pursuit of an acting career — and bring his black-sheep brother back into the fold. He also needs to realize his wife isn’t 100% happy with the way things are either, though the movie and character flip-flop a little on that point depending on whether or not it and she wants to face reality or continue enabling Aidan’s unrealistic career goals. While all of that might seem a little bit much for one film, it’s a fairly streamlined experience to actually watch.
That’s also probably the main thing wrong with it.
The thing about Wish I Was Here is that while it has ambition in terms of the emotional ground it wants to cover, it never knows how to get to where it’s trying to go. While numerous in amount, all of the goals essentially fit into a single, cohesive narrative continuum that boils down to all parents screw things up, as do the next, but hopefully less so. The problem is that none of the lessons ever sink in. For instance, it’s relatively clear what the movie’s going for when we see Aidan home school his children by taking them on a desert excursion — that you need to realize and recognize what’s important in life — but the scene itself is populated with visions of the family playing by the fire, with voiceovers telling us rather than showing us the intent of that moment. The scenes meant to have the greatest thematic resonance simply wash over you, and by the time they’re done, they’ve left only a thin residue of meaning, almost entirely devoid of weight or impact.
The other major problem is that, particularly with how far the movie industry has grown since Garden State in terms of small-budget films exploring the now-well-trodden ground of delayed adulthood (see: Skeleton Twins and Laggies for two big examples from just this year). The themes explored in Wish I Was Here can feel tired at best and lazy at worst, and in a lot of ways the whole thing comes across as “my first indie movie”, particularly combined with how shallow and banal the character interactions often are. There’s a scene where Aidan and family walk proudly out of a wig store, his daughter in a bright, pink wig and his son with a superhero-style towel wrapped around his neck, clearly in defiance of society’s conventions, that feels like it was conceived before any of the writing was typed out. That feeling pervades the entire movie, where the broader ideas supersede the actual story details to the point that all we can do is accept the themes rather than embrace them.
I did think this was pretty funny, though:
One thing you might notice throughout Zach Braff’s adulthood trilogy is recurrent appearances by some of Braff’s actor friends. Though in different roles, it’s kind of fun to see these people “together again for the first time”, including Michael Weston, and especially Jim Parsons, whose career has obviously exploded in between roles in Garden State and Wish I Was Here. Braff obviously holds at least some regard for his friends and past work relationships, and this time around it’s enormously satisfying to see Donald Faison (from Scrubs) in a cameo role as an Aston Martin salesperson. Faison doesn’t get a whole lot to do, but he does get to play in one of the movie’s stronger scenes, and it’s almost reassuring to see Doctors Dorian and Turk once more sharing screen time given how good and endearing a show Scrubs ended up being. It just kind of makes you feel a little warmer and fuzzier inside to think that the two are also friends in real life.
The acting is all generally without fault despite the relative weakness of the source material, but the standouts are definitely Joey King and Pierce Gagnon as the two Bloom children, Grace and Tucker. Joey King’s Grace almost carries the film in her part as the devout Jewish daughter who convincingly shows the greatest amount of growth of anyone else in the movie, while Pierce Gagnon displays strong comedic timing with pretty much every line he’s given, making it easy to forget the malicious, telekinetic despot he’s destined to become.
Overall though, the characters are another area where Wish I Was Here falls short. In Garden State, the people that Andrew Largeman met, whether they were co-stars, secondary leads or background cast, all added to his journey, but in Wish I Was Here we’re pretty much down to family members only. In a way, that’s almost a cynical indictment on the whole married with kids existence (i.e., you lose all your friends), but more importantly, everyone that Largeman met in Garden State added a lot of colour and meaning to that film, whereas Wish I Was Here is populated mostly with typical character tropes.
Zach Braff gets a lot of crap from a lot of passive observers, and I think I know why that is. It’s true that his movies have been angsty, manchild fantasies about everybody being worth something and themes that tell us it’s okay to be satisfied with chronic underachievement, but he’s also a relatively clever and funny performer and it’s not like his movies don’t have a point to make. Sometimes it seems like the very act of writing about male feelings is a self-defeating exercise that’s best left only to your most private moments, and while that sentiment makes Braff an easy target, I think the real reason he gets so much crap is because he’s just one of those guys. Look at him — he’s just one of those skinny, slightly effeminate guys, who’s annoying for no reason, and like the Tobey Maguire’s and Aziz Ansari’s of the world, some people just can’t help but kick sand in their faces while threatening that they’d smash them if they weren’t worried about their skinny frames drying up and blowing away.
When it comes to Wish I Was Here, however, it’s almost impossible to watch without immediately seeing how much better it should have been. Not just because it’s shallow and underwritten, not just because it feels insincere and tired, but mostly because Braff’s Garden State, for all its emo vulnerabilities and “all-the-feels” trappings, is so much better. The pacing is better, the soundtrack is better, the gags are sharper, the whole tone feels a lot more on point, every moment and feeling is earned, and the whole thing feels a lot tighter and able to effectively articulate its message. Frankly, Braff was also a lot cuter back then, and honestly that helped a little bit too. Wish I Was Here represents a real regression in Braff’s work, and it comes across as a piece created by a semi-famous, mildly cynical movie star only peripherally aware of real life rather than the promising new creator who still remembers what it’s really like.
Wish I Was Here final score: 5.5
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