Wish I Was Here is disappointingly okay

Zach Braff directs and stars in Wish I Was Here
Zach Braff directs and stars in Wish I Was Here
Merie Weismiller Wallace

Wish I Was Here, the movie that actor and second-time director Zach Braff partially funded with money raised through Kickstarter, isn't nearly terrible enough to satisfy all the grumblers who are hoping to see it fail. When Braff couldn't secure traditional financing for the film, he appealed to the fan base he'd built up over nine seasons of Scrubs. Disgruntled interwebsters complained: Wasn't Braff rich, or at least a guy with connections? Was it fair to take money from loyal supporters who wouldn't receive a share of the profits if the film became a surprise hit?

There are plenty of carving knives out for Braff, and for Wish I Was Here. The reality is that it's disappointingly okay. Braff had something to say — about the ways the loss of a parent can both rattle and redefine us, for one thing — and not enough money to say it. He also wanted the freedom to choose his actors. The vitriol directed at Braff suggests that traditional methods of film financing are somehow more artistically pure, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Wish I Was Here is at least stretching toward something, and Braff's earnest determination helps smooth out some of the awkward bumps. Braff plays Aidan, a desperately unemployed actor trying hard to live and work in Los Angeles. Wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) essentially supports him and the couple's two children, Grace and Tucker, with her tedious job at the water authority, where she tolerates an insidious form of sexual harassment from a co-worker.

But that's only the beginning of the couple's problems: Aidan's cantankerous father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), is dying of cancer. He tries an experimental treatment that drains his bank account, which means he can no longer afford Grace and Tucker's private-school tuition. Aidan and Sarah aren't particularly religious, or even vaguely spiritual, which is just one reason they feel blindsided by the looming death of a parent: They lament that they don't know how to explain death, or the possibility of an afterlife, to their kids because they don't know what they believe themselves.

If Braff is guilty of anything, it's of sending the story sprawling in too many directions at once. (He co-wrote the script with his brother, Adam.) He opens the movie with some fantasy–voice-over folderol about how he and his brother used to pretend they were superheroes capable of saving the world. The next scene, in which Braff's Aidan swears freely at the breakfast table in front of his children — and rails against their demand that he drop a dollar in the swear jar — is much better. Braff neglects some crucial or at least just potentially interesting story threads. And there are too many places where Braff indulges Aidan's childish self-absorption.

But Braff is adequately sympathetic in Wish I Was Here. Aidan is well past the age when he needs to realize that his man-child pout won't get him everything he wants, and once in a while, you see that recognition hit: Braff's half–zonked-out demeanor gives way to something more adult. No matter how Braff paid for Wish I Was Here, there have been far worse sins committed in the name of filmmaking. How many dollars does he have to put in the swear jar before we'll forgive him?

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