Wish I Was Here (2014)

Review first published by Sight & Sound, October 2014

Synopsis: LA, present day. Aidan Bloom is an unemployed actor and a chore-averse househusband. His wife Sara wins the bread working in an office and enduring inappropriate conduct from her colleague Jerry. When Aidan’s father Gabe reveals that he is dying from cancer and can no longer afford to pay the fees his grandchildren Tucker and Grace to attend an orthodox Jewish private school, Aidan – who has traumatic memories of being bullied in state school – reluctantly agrees to homeschool them. Despite shortcomings in geometry, Aidan discovers a talent for teaching life lessons, and discusses epiphanies and mortality with his children on a camping trip to the Californian desert. Together the three also renovate the garden. As Gabe’s health deteriorates, Aidan tries to persuade his feckless, blogging brother Noah to visit their father and patch things up with him, but Noah cannot stand Gabe’s disapproval, and is busy trying to attract the geeky neighbour Janine with an elaborately designed robot costume for Comic-Con. Aidan gives fellow actor Paul some tips at an audition. En route to Gabe’s deathbed, Aidan confronts Jerry and is floored with a punch. Aidan, Sara, Gabe and Tucker are by Gabe’s side as he begins to slip away, and Noah turns up at the last minute to be congratulated by Gabe for winning the Comic-Con costume competition. Paul gets Aidan a college job teaching acting.

Review: “What are we doing here?”

“As parents, or on Earth?”

“Can I say both?”

This exchange between middle-aged, unemployed father of two Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) and his supportive wife Sara (Kate Hudson) encapsulates the way that Braff (as director/co-writer) teases broader spiritual and existential themes from the family dramedy of Wish I Was Here. This is Braff’s second feature, although its title would have served just as well for his first – in fact called Garden State (2004) – whose protagonist Andrew Largemen (also played by Braff) was an overmedicated, out-of work actor, returning to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral, and eventually resolving some persistent, damaging issues with the overbearing father whom he had been avoiding for years. Aidan may be a good ten years older than Andrew, his mother may be long dead and his father Gabe (an effortlessly scene-stealing Mandy Patinkin) may be slowly succumbing to cancer, but Aidan, like Andrew, is an out-of-work LA actor who shares the younger man’s sense of purposelessness and absence, and is in search of reconnection with both his roots and himself. In other words, Wish I Was Here has the feel of a decade-later, catch-up sequel to Garden State, where only the names have been changed. The big difference is that Aidan also has a brother, Noah (Josh Gad) – a big lost boy who, like Andrew in Garden State, has distanced himself from his disappointed, forbidding father. The whiff of autobiographical influence here is only enhanced by the knowledge that Braff co-wrote the screenplay with his real brother Adam, and that both were, like the siblings in the film, raised within a Jewish orthodoxy that they subsequently rejected.

There are other kinds of autobiography at work here. By now an established (and successful) actor/director, Braff courted controversy by raising over three million dollars for this latest production via a public Kickstarter campaign rather than by, say, putting up his own money or earning studio investment. Normally this would be nothing more than production tittle-tattle – except that Braff chooses to reflect the funding issue within the drama of the film itself. When Gabe can no longer afford his grandchildren’s private school fees, Aidan goes cap in hand to the school’s chief rabbi asking for tzedakah, or ‘charity’, only to be told that tzedakah is for those in real need, not for “some schmuck who’s decided to be an actor.” Indeed, Aidan’s insolvency, like his general habit of carrying around the family swear jar as his chief source of cash, becomes a recurrent motif.

Perhaps Braff succeeds in showing imperfect everymen as the heroes of their own family sagas precisely because the flaws of these likeable fraternal nebbishes never run particularly deep, or maybe it is because the ‘real’ challenge that they must face – their father’s passing – is made infinitely easier by an idealised, aestheticised deathbed scene. Ultimately a high tolerance for mawkishness will be needed to love Wish I Was Here – but along the way there are some very funny lines, if perhaps no divine revelation.

Anton Bitel