I am, apparently, one of the few people who hasn’t decided to retroactively hate Garden State, Zach Braff’s 2004 debut as a writer/director. I am also, apparently, one of the few people who doesn’t understand the nuances of commerce and cool that designate Braff’s bid for Kickstarter funding a crass manipulation and Rob Thomas’ Kickstarter-funded Veronica Mars movie a cause for celebration. Still, it’s impossible to watch Braff’s new thing, Wish I Was Here, without considering his first film and the path he took to funding his second.
Wish I Was Here is in many ways – thematic, visual, musical – Garden State’s creative sibling. In it Braff once again plays the central character. Much like Garden State’s Andrew Largeman, Aidan Bloom is a struggling actor with some minor past success that never quite led to something big. And, once again, our beleaguered protagonist is forced to reckon with Serious Life Stuff, in particular his foundering career, a strained relationship with his wife, a self-absorbed younger brother, two precocious kids whom he can no longer afford to send to private school, and the imminent death of his father, who, much like Andrew’s father in Garden State, is over-bearing and emotionally distant.
We’re also treated to some of the same images: casting call waiting rooms filled with hopeful carbon copies, a defiant trio walking in slo-mo to moody trip-hop, the same trio (plus one) speeding life-affirmingly down the PCH (instead of cruising pensively down the Garden State Parkway), and the same trio, yet again, standing on the edge of a vast expanse (instead of a void), arms outstretched hopefully (instead of fists clenched, screaming primally). And in the soundtrack emotions are pushed and pulled with the same sort of alternatingly glum and rosy indie songsmithery.
The molds are so similar it’s not hard to imagine that Aidan Bloom could be Andrew Largeman, ten years after ditching his flight from Newark to LA to rescue his sweetheart, Sam (Natalie Portman), from heartbreak and an anachronistic airport telephone booth. Sure, Aidan’s daughter is a little too old for this to be literally true, the backstories don’t match up, and Aidan’s wife (Kate Hudson as Sarah Bloom) is not cut from the same cloth as her manic-pixie-counterpart in Garden State. But Aidian stumbles bewildered through territory quite similar to the hills and valleys Andrew roamed in Garden State. Both men are saddled with high hopes, have enjoyed little professional success, and find themselves careening headlong into a post-postmodern hero’s journey of hardship, catharsis, and epiphany.
But while the screenplay for Garden State was tight and economic – owing a debt perhaps to Hal Ashby and his cult classic Harold and Maude, not just in its potent blend of comedy and drama but also its engrossing forward motion – Wish I Was Here could benefit from being more focused, more grounded in the sort of internal logic that can give life to narrative. Some scenes, especially toward the end of the film, give the impression that boxes are being checked off in service to the cinematic expectations we’ve picked up from indie flicks like this one. Throughout the story scenes have a sense of their existing as component parts of a setup or payoff, not as truly significant events in the lives of real people. Case in point: the scene with Donald Faison, Turk of J.D. and Turk, the best friends Braff and Faison played for eight seasons on Scrubs. The scene is fun. And it’s funny. But its presence is barely justified and is ultimately of no real consequence to the story.
Which brings us to the whole Kickstarter thing. The few high-profile films that have taken this route to existence apparently can’t help themselves from being fan service, at least in part. So Faison’s presence in the film is less a narrative necessity than it is a favor to the film’s 46,000 or so financiers. Really and truly, that doesn’t make it any less fun. But fun doesn’t mean the movie needs it.
From the beginning of Braff’s Kickstarter campaign he’s maintained that crowdsourcing would allow him to make the movie he wanted to make, without compromise. At one of the film’s first two screenings for Kickstarter backers, this past Monday here in Toronto, Braff suggested that the two things studio execs would have most likely pressured him to change are the films’ “jewishness” and its “sci-fi fantasy sequences.” Could be. Of course, we’ll never know. Perhaps a studio’s input would have helped to produce a tighter, more polished movie. Perhaps that input really would have interfered with the creative process in a negative and unnecessary way. Perhaps the perceived expectations of 46,520 nondescript patrons had the same effect. I for one would love to see the studio version, if only for comparison.
I hope I’m not giving the impression that there’s nothing about the movie to enjoy. Though Wish I Was Here in many ways misses the mark, there are more than a few things it gets right. Far and away, the best of these things is the compelling, affecting performances by Joey King and Pierce Gagnon, as Aidan’s kids, and by Kate Hudson, as Aidan's wife, and Mandy Patinkin, as Aidan’s dad. There is a scene toward the middle of the film in which Hudson and Patinkin seize the opportunity to shine, as the Bloom family’s waning patriarch allows his title and the responsibilities of his office to be passed on to his son’s wife, who has long been the family’s breadwinner and guiding force. Hudson’s Sarah Bloom is a poised, powerful, and fiercely loving matriarch, the likes of which grace the big screen (and the small screen) far too seldom. Though not the story’s central focus, she is in many ways her husband’s superior. And, let’s be honest, she is probably, more than a little, an act of atonement for Braff’s over-generous contribution to the pantheon of manic pixie dream girls. Still, Sarah Bloom and Hudson's portrayal of her are clearly among the movie’s strengths.
I should also be clear that I wish the best for Braff. He seems to have the dubious distinction of being one of those celebrities a wide swath of the population has decided to hate for no good reason. That’s too bad, because he has a gift for telling a certain kind of story, with an open-hearted sincerity very, very few creative people have the courage to allow pride of place. (Here’s lookin’ at you, Cameron Crowe.) So, he finally faced up to the pressure of a second outing and, surprise, it didn’t live up to the expectations created by the first. Good thing that’s out of the way. Now, Mr, Braff, please don’t wait another ten years before crushing the third.