Wish I Was Here is less a movie than an unfiltered ramble from Zach Braff’s brain, splayed out over 101 minutes of life lessons. His chief topics of interest include sex jokes, precocious children, precocious children swearing, beautiful and idealized women, bitter father figures, CGI fantasy sequences, fur-fetishist sex, and how terrible public schools are for nice lower-middle-class California families. There are moments of beauty to be had throughout, but the whole thing feels like a fevered rant inspired in equal parts by marijuana and a quarterlife crisis. If anything, this is the movie that should’ve come before Garden State; for that film’s lingering faults, it was an assured, memorable debut by a filmmaker with something to say. Braff apparently gathered a lot more to say in the ten years since, but lost all concept of how to go about it.
See, Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a nice guy, if a bit misunderstood. Well, actually, he isn’t, but Wish I Was Here is distinctly in the business of telling you he is. In reality he’s a well-meaning but deluded fuckup whose fledgling acting career is continually prioritized over the lives of his loving wife and children. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) is sick of her data entry job, his daughter Grace (Joey King, the big-eyed young woman from The Conjuring) is hitting puberty and struggling to reconcile it with her devout Jewish faith, and his son Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) is a ball of manic energy in need of focus. When Aidan’s father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin, underused) announces that his cancer has metastasized, Aidan is forced to take his kids out of Hebrew school (Gabe was bankrolling their private education) and get his life in order.
And that’s just the start of it. There’s also Aidan’s “blogger” brother Noah (Josh Gad), a fellow misunderstood screwup living in a trailer. And the comely young woman in the next trailer over (Ashley Greene) who attracts Noah’s attentions with her yen for cosplay. And Aidan’s attempts to homeschool Grace and Tucker. And Sarah’s sexist pig of a cowoker, and for that matter her aloof boss. And Aidan’s fledgling acting career, where he vies for parts alongside a fellow upstart played by Jim Parsons. And Grace’s journey of self-discovery that starts with her shaving her head in the midst of a nervous episode. And Noah and Aidan’s attempts to reconnect and make peace with Gabe before his passing. And a bunch of jokes about Judaism and Southern California and the stresses of parenting.
Needless to say, it’s easy to see why Braff took to Kickstarter to finance Wish I Was Here: nobody could tell him which ideas were good or bad that way. For better and largely for worse, there’s clearly as much of Braff’s heart and soul in this film as there was in Garden State, but without any of the clarity of purpose or comprehension of how to build a narrative. There’s a powerful film somewhere in here about lost souls forced into positions of responsibility as they’re trying to overcome the childhood demons put in them by a man who was once in their same position, but like everything else in the film it’s muddled by Braff’s inability to linger on any one idea for more than a few seconds at a time.
The film isn’t totally without merit, and that’s the harder thing to reconcile. There’s a lovely exchange between Sarah and Gabe in the hospital about the speed with which live elapses and concludes, and King and Gad both do surprisingly affecting work in the little time they get to work with. But it’s Braff’s show, and for his part he stares soulfully or quizzically or both at things while reciting platitudes. (There’s a lot of that, with characters reading poetry aloud for long periods more than once in the film.) Wish I Was Here is too dour for its moments of whimsy to work, too kindhearted for the film’s asynchronously dirty mind, too forcibly uplifting to actually leave a mark.