Almost exactly 10 years ago, Zach Braff debuted his wildly acclaimed “Garden State” at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Braff played Andrew, a depressed, heavily medicated twenty-something year old aspiring actor who returned from Los Angeles to his native Newark for his mother’s funeral.
“Wish I Was Here,” to be released in Boston July 25, (again) stars Braff, this time as Aidan, a struggling thirty-something actor who (still) lives in Los Angeles in states of perpetual malaise and financial distress. If viewed as the same character, Aidan/Andrew’s only observable accomplishment over the last 10 years was his acquisition of a wife and two children. Otherwise, his last decade has been spent on a treadmill.
Unfortunately, almost two hours into the movie, the audience can relate to Aidan’s melancholy after what feels like a decade spent artistically running in place.
To be fair, the story had potential and the star-studded cast had the chops.
Aidan Bloom calls himself an actor, but had only one “starring” role many years ago as the “before” guy in a dandruff commercial. He spends a good deal of his time daydreaming that he is a spaceman and cursing in front of the kids. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) supports the family, trudging off to her data-cruncher job at the water department, where she contends with the spiritual wasteland of her cubicle and the infuriating sexual harassment by her cellmate. Their two kids, pre-teen Grace and younger brother Tucker, attend a pricey yeshiva school, paid for by Aidan’s father, (Mandy Patinkin). Aidan exists in a bubble of self-indulgent fantasy until Gabe develops cancer that requires expensive out-of-pocket treatments and, faced with limited financial resources, decides to pull the plug on the kids’ tuition rather than on himself.
As if the cosmos itself had snapped its fingers, Aidan awakens from his trance. Suddenly, he has to contend with the realities of a dying parent, an impatient wife, and kids who need schooling. As Gabe must confront death, his son must confront adulthood and its attending responsibilities.
Rather than subject his kids to the taunting and thumping of his still painful public school years, Aidan homeschools them, with predictably mixed results. The world is his blackboard, and he starts in his own backyard. (“Nice little slice of Mumbai you have here,” Gabe quipped). The lessons alternate between the practical (resurrecting a neglected pool) and the universal (appreciating the magic of desert camping), with a bit of street-smart manipulation thrown in (scamming an Aston Martin test drive).
Their value, however, is not pedagogic (as California Standard Tests would no doubt eventually reveal). These are lessons for the teacher, not his students. Slowly (as in excruciatingly slowly), Aidan awakens to his ability to discipline and be disciplined, to be open to family intimacy, and to appreciate parenthood.
In short, Aidan starts to grow up, and in the process transitions from perpetual child to budding head of his own nuclear family.
The best part of the film, especially for those of us suffering from “Homeland” withdrawal, is Patinkin as Gabe Bloom (a dead ringer for his Saul Berenson). The patriarch Bloom is the film’s only nuanced character, a man whose religion is both sword and shield. His biggest disappointment is his relationship with his sons, but rather than admit it, he hides behind caustic barbs and Talmudic aphorisms. He is not Aidan’s ideal role model.
Josh Gad, as Aidan’s reclusive and grizzly brother Noah, does his best with a bizarre role and Hudson is light and gracious as Aidan’s inexplicably supportive wife.
The movie’s insurmountable problem is that it seems stuck in the glib mediocrity of television sitcoms. The gags and artsy California montages feel tired and trite. The countless vanity close ups of Braff go from embarrassing to annoying. When Hassids show up on Segways, all that is missing is a canned laughter track.
“Wish I Was Here” has some solid soulful messages about family, Judaism and life’s challenges in the modern age of insta-everything, but they are buried beneath layers of extraneous and superficial footage. As the late great Roger Ebert succinctly stated, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” ‘Nuff said.
Pictured at top: Zach Braff and Kate Hudson are co-parents to Pierce Gagnon (left) and Joey King (right).