Thursday, July 31, 2014

Wish I Was Here: Are you sure?

Wish I Was Here (2014) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang 

A little of Zach Braff goes a long way.

He directed and co-wrote this film, sharing scripting credit with older brother Adam. The brothers also can be found among the 15 producers, co-producers, line producers and executive producers — just in passing, can we finally admit that the jockeying for “producer” credit has well and truly gotten out of hand? — and Zach also stars.

Traditional teaching doesn't accomplish much when Aidan (Zack Braff) decides to home-
school children Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon). Aidan has much better
luck when he involves them in home-repair projects such as a long-neglected back yard
fence: a shared endeavor that allows plenty of time to discuss weighty topics.
Perhaps more tellingly, crucial funding was provided by the 46,520 backers who contributed to a Kickstarter campaign, so that Braff had the creative freedom to cast, shoot and cut the film precisely to his specifications. He likely found it reasonable to assume that the lion’s share of these crowd-funding supporters were fans who’ve followed his career since TV’s Scrubs: No surprise, then, that Braff has rewarded this loyalty by playing a character whose mannerisms and line readings look and sound much like that show’s Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian.

Which isn’t a bad thing, as long as one enjoys the by-now-very-familiar Braff shtick.

Braff has been dubbed the New Jersey Woody Allen, and with ample cause; the younger actor/filmmaker delivers a similar blend of chatty social ineptness and Jewish angst. Much of Braff’s dialogue has the cadence and timing that one would expect from a stand-up act: less a dramatic performance, more like stepping out of the character in order to make a wry observation about life, the universe and everything.

But not consistently, in the case of this film. At times, we get the Zach Braff from Scrubs, delivering a line with the wheedling, precious, little-boy inflections of an adolescent trying to talk his parents into serving ice cream for supper. Alternatively, Braff retreats from that artifice and attempts to be stern and serious, now wanting to persuade us that he really is capable of handling this script’s solemn topics with an appropriate level of thespic skill.

Doesn’t work. Braff’s signature tics and hiccups are so thoroughly a part of his performance, that he never succeeds in becoming anybody other than himself. Which is a shame, because when he gets out of his own way, Wish I Was Here makes some thoughtful observations about family estrangement, seizing the day, and death with dignity.

Braff stars as Aidan Bloom, a 35-year-old struggling Los Angeles actor who relies on wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) to keep things together financially. He’s blithely unaware that she chafes under the soul-sucking sameness of her public service job, believing instead that she’s cheerfully content to keep supporting “his dream.”

They have two children — teenage Grace (Joey King) and grade-school Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) — who attend a private Jewish day school courtesy of tuition payments made by Aidan’s father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin). Aidan’s long-estranged bachelor brother, Noah (Josh Gad), lives a withdrawn life in a house trailer by the beach, and is regarded as a total loser by their father.

Actually, Gabe isn’t much for saying nice things about anybody; absent the calming influence of his (recently?) deceased wife, Gabe has yielded to a cranky, crusty bearing that Aidan and Sarah do their best to ignore. Sarah’s very presence has long been an affront to Gabe, since she isn’t Jewish; fortunately, Grace has thoroughly embraced the Jewish tradition and teachings that mean so much to her grandfather.

Were this status quo to continue, we can imagine that Aidan and Sarah might slide into divorce, however reluctantly, due to his failure to, well, engage in a meaningful way. They’re spared that possible fate by another crisis: the resurrection of Gabe’s cancer, which requires a significant financial outlay to battle anew. The upshot: Gabe no longer can fund the spendy private school.

What to do? Aidan is horrified by the public school option, particularly mid-term. And he’s too self-centered to consider the reasonable suggestion that his wife proposes first: that he home-school their children. After all, it’s not as if he’s doing anything meaningful, while waiting for the occasional casting call. (Aidan, even more desperate than Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey in 1982’s Tootsie, even joins a group of all-black actors hoping for the lead in a production of Othello.)

No surprise, the initial home-schooling sessions are less than successful; Grace knows far more about geometry than her clueless father, and Tucker would much rather play with his power drill (an intriguing character detail that goes nowhere).

Breakthroughs emerge only when Aidan decides to share himself with his children: to teach them what he thinks, and why; to involve them in their suddenly uncertain family dynamic. And, as well, to indulge in a few modest “bucket list” dreams voiced by Grace and Tucker, and funded by the overflowing contents of the family’s massive “swear jar.”

Yes, that’s rather corny. But it works, to a degree, in large part because King gracefully carries so much of the story’s emotional weight. She’s a talented young actress with a gift for conveying complexity through her thoughtful expressions, and her method of handling weighty dialogue with the earnest sincerity of youth; the result is always persuasive. She also has a way of screwing up her eyes and squinting, when confronted by a particularly dumb statement or situation, which cuts the offender (usually her father) dead.

Followers of television’s recently concluded Fargo miniseries already are familiar with King, who was similarly powerful — in her quiet, contemplative way — throughout that darkly comic narrative. She also has elevated popcorn fare such as Oz the Great and Powerful and White House Down; clearly, she has an impressive career ahead.

Hudson also brings a lot to the party, as the glue that holds this family together. (Never mind that she gives Aidan credit for that very trick, at one point in this narrative; that’s simply Braff’s script giving its author yet another pat on the back.) Like her mother, Goldie Hawn, Hudson has a gift for blending mischievous intent — ah, those sparkling eyes! — with heartfelt sentiment. Her prime moment comes during a heart-to-heart with Gabe, and it’s a helluva scene.

Patinkin, as well, delivers his performance with customary skill; he’s such a fine actor. He overplays the frail cancer victim a jot, particularly with too much emphasis on the fragility of his voice, but I blame Braff (as director) for that minor misstep.

Donald Faison, Braff’s longtime buddy from Scrubs, has a droll cameo as an Aston Martin salesman.

Other elements of the story remain underdeveloped, sometimes irritatingly so. King’s Grace gets the lion’s share of the “youth focus,” which would be fine if she were an only child; Gagnon’s Tucker, by comparison, seems less a real kid and more a typically rambunctious TV sitcom kid. And what’s with the drill? Yes, it’s a cute affectation, but what’s the back-story?

The all-important swear jar also comes to a bewildering end, utterly abandoned for no particular reason.

As a “stickler alert” aside — and I mention this only because Grace is shown correcting her father’s grammar — this film’s title obviously should have been Wish I Were Here. Which I’m hoping Braff realized, and he went with the “error” deliberately, as a subtle inside joke.

Perhaps most surprising is the degree to which the normally effervescent Gad has been diminished; he plays Noah with the bland, muted bearing of somebody on Quaaludes. We get a whiff, at one point, of Noah’s savant-ish ability to analyze stray parts for the purpose of constructing Something Fabulous — a talent one would expect to be very useful to, say, an engineer — but this goes no further than a decision to design and build a costume in order to impress a cos-play enthusiast (Ashley Greene) at San Diego’s ComicCon.

Cue some token scenes at ComicCon, which feel like inserts designed solely to please Braff’s fan base. Even more pointless, though, are the film’s frequent retreats into Aidan’s fantasy world, where he imagines himself a helmeted space knight accompanied by a cute flying droid, and tasked with saving ... well, anybody can see that one coming.

A lot of money was wasted on these irrelevant special effects, which the film neither needed nor benefits from. Clearly, they were funded by the unexpected largess of that Kickstarter campaign ... proving, once again, that suddenly having the means to indulge, doesn’t mean that one should indulge.

Ultimately, this feels too much like a vanity project. Somebody else — or several somebody elses — needed to deliver a top-to-bottom rewrite, and I’m also inclined to believe that Braff should have handed over the directorial reins. As it is, he spends far too much screen time being himself, and that interferes with what should have been a much sweeter story.

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