It’s sad to think most people only know Zach Braff as Dr. John Dorian, Sacred Heart Hospital’s day-dreamiest physician, because there’s a brilliant filmmaker that most mainstream audiences aren’t aware of caged inside the goofy comic. Braff’s brilliant directorial debut, Garden State, showcases emotionality and raw, tender observations that one wouldn’t expect from the previously pigeonholed actor – but that premiered 10 years ago. Since Scrubs, we haven’t heard much from Braff besides Oz The Great And Powerful and a short stint as Pizza Guy on Cougar Town, but thankfully Wish I Was Here changes all of that. While the proven actor certainly knows how to entertain a crowd, Braff’s best work comes from behind the camera, and while Wish I Was Here can’t quite capture the honest majesty of Garden State, the actor/director’s swan song for a tireless generation is a sweet, heartfelt message to the dreamers and believers out there.
Playing a struggling actor and family man, Braff’s character Aidan Bloom has come to a crossroads in his life – give up his ambitious goals for monotonous safety, or continue to chase the stars while his wife (Kate Hudson) slaves away at a desk. Aidan relies on his father’s (Mandy Patinkin) help if his children are to stay enrolled in their Jewish private school, but when it’s revealed that cancer is threatening Gabe Bloom’s life, an expensive procedure becomes his only choice. With Aidan’s financial support cut, and not to mention with an emotional weight now dragging down, a struggling dreamer must take control of the lives around him before they all unravel at the seams – but is Aidan willing to abandon all hope on his own personal goals?
Wish I Was Here superficially strikes viewers as a self-indulgent, misguided, and horribly out of touch story about the an older variation of “Me” generation crybabies, which is leaving a sour taste in the mouths of outspoken critics, but without establishing a jaded undertone, Aidan’s dilemma seems meaningless. Yes, Braff’s main character selfishly only cares about his own dreams and wants, never fully comprehending a reality where other people have the same wild fantasies – which becomes a major issue. That’s just human nature, it’s how we’re wired. Complacency could be the world’s most effective silent killer, slowly chipping years off of our lives carrying on like pre-mid-life-crisis-Peters from Office Space. Wish I Was Here nobly takes the low road to salvation, though, while Braff’s final words assure us that success isn’t defined as we once assumed. Heroes don’t always have to be legends who gets statues, as long as we’re a hero to those depending on us.
I applaud Braff’s efforts of flipping gender norms as well, because typically it’s the male desk jockey who hates every waking moment of his mundane, pencil-pushing existence. Wish I Was Here instead sends Kate Hudson’s character off to work while Braff bumbles about, helplessly traversing the minor leagues of Hollywood. Here’s where more chivalrous men immediately attacked such a heinous story, disgusted by Braff’s suggestion that men couldn’t possibly be having a crisis of conscious, but that just makes Aidan’s journey all the more meaningful. Not only does his professional dream have an expiration date he’s so strongly fighting, and not only is his home life suffering, but there’s an obvious undertone of emasculation adding to a laundry list of personal drama. Plus, at the risk of never going on another date in my life, I’ll admit the switch doesn’t bother me in the least – if anything, it’s empowering. Hudson’s character Sarah supports, adores, and encourages her husband, sacrificing personal happiness to do so, which is a testament to strong-willed romantics and independent woman of the world.
It’s Mandy Patinkin’s father figure Gabe who disrespects Aidan the most for his theatrical underachieving, revoking his manhood for forcing Sarah into a slavish work environment. Patinkin plays a stereotypical geezer who hides softer emotions behind a stern brick wall, driving sons Aidan and Noah (Josh Gad) farther and farther away, and it’s Gad’s performance that truly highlights saddening selfishness. Shown by Noah wasting brilliant technological skills on a blogger’s career path (ouch, thanks Braff), Wish I Was Here wedges emotional scars between family bonds in an overly aggressive effort to build tension, which is exactly what Garden State avoids. Wish I Was Here suffers from hammy arguments and sadistic characters who sometimes seem too detached from reality, becoming one of Braff’s only struggles – but a noticeable one. Patinkin and Gad unfortunately have their throwaway spats that just don’t fit such a redemptive occasion, as Braff’s script uncharacteristically loses touch.
But, such are the highs and lows of filmmaking, and while Braff does falter, he also triumphantly finds sweet innocence in both child actors, Joey King playing Grace and Pierce Gagnon playing Tucker. There’s a touching parallel between Aidan and Grace, as both are stuck at defining moments in their lives while looking ahead at a blank unknown, only Grace’s problems encapsulate those of a maturing adolescent. Tucker doles out his blunt opinions and immature sense of comedy, lightening the mood every so often, but Grace represents those wily children clever enough to outsmart their own parents, which comes to benefit Aidan over time. King and Braff play off of one another with confidence and riveting chemistry, becoming a spunky team ready for rebirth and transformation – except only one of them looks dashing in a pink wig.
Behind all the inner pity, “gimmie gimmie!” attitudes, and neglectful daydreaming, is a story worth telling, and Braff admirably does so. Our dreams don’t die when we turn a certain age – responsibility doesn’t just kick in and become our natural instinct. Everyone’s dream is to wake up each morning, role out of bed, and put on a huge smile while walking into work. The American dream, no matter how long it takes, will always be strived for – but at what cost? Aidan has to either continue reaching for the stars or embrace acceptance, and we watch a broken man find solace hidden places he’d long since forgotten about.
Wish I Was Here isn’t Garden State, but it becomes a welcomed second feature for Braff once Aidan’s character cycle comes full circle. Maybe this is the dreamer in me admiring the fight in Braff’s script, ripe with his own personal twists after falling out of the mainstream spotlight post Scrubs, but there’s honesty in his selfish admittance. It may not be revolutionary or touching, but honesty is all we can ask for at times, whether the best or worst of us is brought out. Without being as raunchy as Neighbors or as grounded as Chef, Wish I Was Here still inspires heartwarming levels of uplifting hope for the inspirited fantasizers still soulfully searching for their life-altering moment of clarity.
Just look around dreamers, because it might already be in your grasp.
Wish I Was Here is an honest second feature from the mind of Zach Braff, and while some may deem it crudely self-indulgent, I believe there's enough beauty in Aidan's journey to rattle an older culture of dreamers.