WISH I WAS HERE
Director: Zach Braff
Cast: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Josh Gad
MPAA Rating: (for language and some sexual content)
Running Time: 2:00
Release Date: 7/18/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 17, 2014
There's a shot in Wish I Was Here that more or less represents the entirety of the movie. It's an overhead shot that slowly rises above two figures lying on a hospital bed in a caring embrace. On one side is a young girl in a hot-pink wig, and on the other is her dying grandfather, who is wearing welding goggles. There is, of course, context to explain this arrangement and especially the strange fashion choices of these two characters, but picture that tableau on its own for a moment. Considering how long the shot lingers, that's certainly what co-writer/director Zach Braff wants us to do.
It's the most noticeable display of the union of the movie's central dichotomy: the achingly sincere and the conspicuously quirky. Which is the focus, though, in this shot? We may note the tenderness of the act—an act of pure love in which the characters ignore the backdrop of the scene and the dire circumstances that have led to it. We might notice how the camera move complements the act in the way it rises up like a silent prayer of thanksgiving or hope, especially considering that the two have just discussed death and the possibility of an afterlife.
We could consider these things, but if we're honest about the shot at face value, what are actually considering? We're staring at the bright wig and the bulky goggles, wondering why such affectations are in a scene that neither benefits from nor needs them. They're visual distractions, and worse than that, they're emotional distractions. We want to be with these characters in this moment. They are speaking about unavoidable truths and acting upon the best instinct each of us has to offer another human being—compassion. Instead, Braff ensures we're gawking at the damn wig and thinking how silly those goggles look.
It's not as if the screenplay by Braff and his brother Adam J. doesn't warn us from the start. The movie opens with a fantasy sequence in which Aidan (Braff) imagines himself as an explorer in spacesuit, examining a strange world accompanied by a hovering robot and eventually chased by a hooded figure in a black cloak. This was a childhood daydream of his, and it has been returning as of late—a temporary interruption in an unfulfilling life.
No matter how hard the movie tries to make him so, Aidan isn't sympathetic, and that the screenplay tries so hard to make him so even more off-putting. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) works in a numbing government office to provide for her family. Aidan has dreams of becoming an actor. He's a narcissist who knows about concepts like "responsibility" but refuses even to take a job—not start a career, just take a job—to help pay the bills. He's afraid he might miss an audition here or there. The only financial support Aidan provides his family is filling the swear jar in the kitchen with dollars and assorted change, and it doesn't register with him that his wife might be unhappy until she flat-out tells him as much.
His father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) pays the tuition at the Jewish private school Aidan's children Grace (Joey King) and Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) attend. After Gabe reveals that he has cancer and can no longer afford the tuition costs, Aidan sticks to his selfish ways—even as the movie tries to convince us that he changes due to his half-attention to his father's illness, his eccentrically half-assed ways of homeschooling his kids, his half-hearted attempts to reconcile his socially inept brother Noah (Josh Gad) with their father, and his half-attentiveness to his suffering wife.
The story jumps between Aidan's relationships with each of these people. Sarah is facing sexual harassment by a slimy co-worker (Michael Weston), who shows up by chance late in the movie as a means of showing Aidan standing up for his wife but that, under the circumstances, only displays how irresponsible he remains (The final speech does the same thing). Aidan takes his children on various adventures—to the desert, for a test drive in a luxury car (after lying that Grace has cancer), in the backyard to make them repair the pool—where they ostensibly learn life lessons but end up in a hot-pink wig and wearing a cape. He tries to convince Noah, a genius who lives in a trailer by the beach, that his brother is wasting his life, and Noah imagines how he can build a costume for a comic book convention. It's all so preciously idiosyncratic and hollow.
There are a few scenes, though, involving Gabe and his interactions with his family in which Braff drops the artifice, and the movie becomes an entirely different and far more earnest affair. The characters aren't on some escapade attempting to discover some hidden truth about themselves. They are simply talking—quite frankly—about life, death, remorse, and reconciliation—matters of real consequence. For brief moments, Wish I Was Here gets it, only to return to its distancing ways.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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