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Catching Up on 2014: Josh Reviews Wish I Was Here

January 9th, 2015
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I enjoyed Garden State, the first film written and directed by Zach Braff, when it was released back in 2004.  I’m surprised it took Mr. Braff so long before making a second film.  Wish I Was Here caused something of a stir when Mr. Braff funded the project through kickstarter.  I can’t say I agree with the criticisms leveled at Mr. Braff.  I applaud him for trying to make this film the way he wanted to make it, without studio interference.  The public chose to support him by backing his kickstarter campaign, so what’s the problem?  If people hadn’t been interested, then the kickstarter wouldn’t have been successful.  I wanted to see the film but missed it during its limited theatrical release.  I was happy to catch up with it on streaming video a few weeks ago.

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Just as Garden State depicted the struggles of a lost, lonely twenty-something, Wish I Was Here depicts an equally lost thirty-something.  Zach Braff plays Aiden Bloom.  He has a beautiful wife (Kate Hudson) and two great kids, but Aiden is just as adrift in life as was Andrew Largeman (Mr. Braff’s character in Garden State).  He’s struggling to find work as an actor.  Though his kids are enrolled in an Orthodox Jewish day school, he doesn’t feel any connection to Judaism or to G-d.  He bickers with his brother (Josh Gad) and, at the start of the film, learns that his father (Mandy Patinkin) is dying of cancer.

When I first heard the film’s title, Wish I Was Here, I braced myself to expect a navel-gazing exercise in young white self-pity.  But I found the film to be surprisingly affecting.  There are some big emotions in the film, but it works.  The movie is gentle and playful and heart-felt without crossing over into saccharine self-obsession.  Mr. Braff has crafted a lovely ensemble piece, filled with compelling characters, each of whom is struggling in some way to find their place in the world and to connect with their fellow family-members.

The ensemble cast is impressive.  Mandy Patinkin in particular is a joy as Aiden’s father, Gabe.  Gabe is a willful patriarch who can be difficult, but Mr. Patinkin plays him with a quiet gentleness.  This character could have been a one-dimensional caricature, but Mr. Patinkin keeps his performance honest and reined in.  This is great work from a great actor.  Aiden’s two kids are played by Pierce Gagnon (who was great in Looper) and Joey King, and they’re both terrific.  I always give the director huge credit whenever I see a great child-actor performance on screen, so bravo to Mr. Braff for a great eye for casting and great work with these young kids.  Both kids give sweet, honest performances.  They’re very endearing.  Josh Gad (Frozen, The Book of Mormon) doesn’t have to stretch too much to play Noah Bloom, a nerdy, reclusive blogger.  This is a familiar geek archetype.  But Mr. Gad is a lot of fun in the role, making Noah funny while also keeping him human and not too much of a one-note joke.

I was surprised by the amount of Jewish content in the film.  Back in Garden State, Mr. Braff’s character was also Jewish, but that didn’t factor too heavily into the film other than one awkward scene in which Andrew Largeman (Braff) gives a short speech to Sam (Natalie Portman) about the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  (It’s awkward to me to watch because Natalie Portman is American and Israeli and surely knows a lot more about the Wailing Wall than the superficial, over-simplified explanation Largeman gives to Sam.)  But here in Wish I Was Here, Mr. Braff’s character’s Judaism is a huge part of the story.  We see that Aiden’s kids are enrolled at an Orthodox Jewish school, mostly because of the wishes of Aiden’s dad, who was paying the tuition costs until his cancer treatment used up all of his savings.  We see a lot, in the film, of the ways in which the kids’ time at a Jewish day school has affected Aiden’s kids, arguably both positively and negatively.  (The restrictions on what Aiden’s daughter Grace can do and wear feels close-minded and stifling to me.  On the other hand, we clearly see that Grace has found a comforting structure and a real spirituality from her Jewish education.)  At first in the film there is a lot of comedy mined from Aiden’s disconnection with the whole universe of Jewish observance.  (He doesn’t fit in with the “look” of the other parents dropping their kids off at school, and he sneaks a puff of a joint while waiting in the carpool line.)  There’s a striking scene (that reminded me very strongly of certain moments in the Coen Brothers’ magnificent film A Serious Man) in which Aiden meets with the bearded, elderly Jewish men who run the school.  Aiden is broke and the funding from his father is gone, so he is asking for a break on the costs of tuition so that he doesn’t have to pull his kids out of the school, but he is completely rebuffed.  In this moment, those elderly Jewish men feel closed-off and unsympathetic.  But there’s also a scene, later, in which Aiden returns and meets with a younger Orthodox man who works at the school, looking for guidance.  In this scene, though the two men are so physically different and have such a different outlook on life and religion, they are still able to find some common ground.  We see that the Orthodox man’s spiritual connection is real and genuine, and Aiden too is able to find some comfort from their conversation.

I was impressed with the presentation of the Jewish world in the film.  Though the Orthodox lens through which all the Judaism in the film is presented makes these Jewish elements an easy target for comedy or ridicule (all these images of elderly, bearded men conjures an image of an insular world from long-ago, one that is very different from many of the other more modern denominations of Judaism in America), I was impressed that Mr. Braff doesn’t usually go for the easy joke.  The scenes that take place in the school and synagogue ring true to me (as opposed to the frustrating, ridiculous depiction of a Jewish service in This is Where I Leave You).  It’s clear that Mr. Braff knows and understands this world, and that he has respect for it even if he feel separate from it.  (This is also an interesting contrast to the Judaism as seen in Obvious Child, which I saw just a few days before seeing this movie and which I wrote about last week.  In that film, Jenny Slate’s character was Jewish but her only connection to Judaism seemed to be to derogatorily describe herself as a “big menorah.”  In this film, Aiden Bloom starts off feeling just as disconnected from his Judaism, but I felt the film had more respect for the idea of religion, and presented a far more fleshed-out, well-rounded depiction of the religion.)

Outside of a death scene that goes on a little too long for my tastes, I was really engaged with and impressed by Wish I Was Here.  My description of the film so far feels like it has been very heavy, but the film has a lovely light touch.  This isn’t a laugh-a-minute comedy, but there are some very funny moments in the film.  The humor keeps the film alive, and allows Mr. Braff to explore his characters, pretty much all of whome are going through some difficult life moments.  The film also looks great, with some gorgeous, striking imagery.  This is quite impressive work from Mr. Braff’s directing, and from cinematographer Lawrence Sher.

I hope Mr. Braff doesn’t wait another decade before directing his next film.  After Garden State and now this, it’s clear that he is a talented writer/director.  I’m eager to see what he does next.

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