Wish I Was Here walks a really fine line of being likeable and hate-able, often shifting back and forth between the two from scene to scene. As a follow-up to Zach Braff’s Garden State, it’s fairly underwhelming, partially because of tonal shifts that range from insightful to saccharinely pandering, but mostly because the film seems so much like Braff’s attempts to muddle through his own emotional malaise that it loses the relatability that caused Garden State to garner such a following. That said, though, I think that when you remove this film from the greater context of Braff’s less-than-noteworthy post-Scrubs career, it largely works on its own terms, even if it wasn’t the second coming that Braff was promising everyone in his crowd-funding pitches.
Aiden Bloom (played by Braff) is a struggling actor, trying to raise two kids with his wife, who supports them by working a soulless job where she is subject to sexual harassment and an unsympathetic boss. When Aiden’s father announces that he’s dying of cancer, in order to pay for treatment the family has to pull the two kids out of their private Jewish school, and Aiden takes up the task of (rather ineffectually) trying to homeschool the kids. What follows isn’t so much a storied narrative as it is a series of scenes that culminate in Aiden’s discovery of adult responsibility, gradually earning respect in the eyes of his father while finding purpose in the simple act of raising his kids.
Now this seems like a really good follow-up premise to Garden State, precisely because it takes the resonant themes of that work and translates them to the 30-something settled, married lifestyle that Gen-Xers are gradually falling into. All that angst that defined their young adulthood needs translation into the working class struggles of middle class America, and this film does a decent job of characterizing that generational struggle. This is a film about meeting the standards of excellence our parents set for us while still using our own generational identity to pass on valuable lessons to our children. That’s a bold message to try and convey, and while I find the attempt to be admirable, the conveyance is where the film starts to break down a bit.
It ultimately comes down to Zach Braff’s artistic style, and the backlash of his Gen-X sensibilities is that he ultimately feels derivative and self-important. His tendency is to take his message and bash us over the head with it through montages set to yester-decade’s indie rock and bizarre dream sequences in which he runs around in a spacesuit. In trying to capture the plight that his generation’s angst has created, he also captured that generation’s more obnoxious qualities, like the penchant for sitcom-spun sentimentality and non-sequitur stabs at pop culture being mistaken for intelligent social commentary. There is a scene in which Aiden calls his brother to inform him that their father is about to die. That phone call takes place while the brother is wearing a spacesuit costume and having sex with a woman in a fursuit. It’s such a weirdly discordant moment that it’s hard to take the dramatic nature of the phone call seriously, even though the film clearly wants you to be both amused by the absurdity and heartbroken at the imminent death in the family. This is just a notable example of how this film struggles with its identity.
And yet, I’m willing to still give this film a marginal recommendation. I found enough to enjoy in its story and characters that I’m willing to give a pass to the stylistic choices of a pretentious Zach Braff. If you’re looking for a thesis statement on the current Gen-X condition, it may unintentionally show more than it intends to, but Wish I Was Here is a decent enough film to warrant a viewing.
Was Garden State a part of your college DVD collection? Let me know in the comments below.