Movie review: ‘Wish I Was Here’

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Wish I Was Here
Staring Zach Braff, Kate Hudson
Directed by Zach Braff
Rated R
Grade: B+

The wheels on the hype train started moving really early for Zach Braff’s movie “Wish I Was Here,” which he co-wrote with his brother Adam. The film is Braff’s second time in the director’s seat, following his melancholy debut with a Grammy-award winning soundtrack, “Garden State,” which was released in 2004. However, this time Braff took his movie straight to his fans and used Kickstarter to raise $3,105,473 to initially fund the project.

That insanity gets even crazier when you break it down. There were 46,520 backers, meaning they all donated an average of $67. In an age where going to the movies is scoffed at for being too expensive, fans have no problems donating their hard earned cash to doughy-faced actors with a good idea and a whole lot of charm.

So to say that the movie had a lot riding on it is an understatement. Braff followed in the footsteps of “The Veronica Mars” movie project (which ended up raising $5,702,153), but he made it very clear that he had his own vision and that, with or without a studio, this movie would be made to his liking with his buddies cast in the roles he wanted. That’s a lot of confidence. A personal bias steps in every time a millionaire with plenty of influences and connections uses Kickstarter, but considering how well Braff knows his fans, it is silly to focus on the means when the end is really impressive.

“Wish I Was Here” is in many ways like “Garden State.” Once again, Braff is the lead and plays a character named Aiden who is lost without a trace of an idea as to what he is doing with his life. He is a father, a son, a husband, a brother and the film focuses on his many roles and how they are constantly trying to be balanced.

Aiden is a struggling actor who hasn’t gotten any work in a while and buckles under the pressures his religious father places on him because he depends on his money to get by. After some heated discussions it is determined that the kids will be taken out of their expensive Jewish school and suddenly Aiden is spending a lot more time with his kids than he anticipated. It’s a little difficult seeing Aiden as a serious parent when all he does is play cool in front of his children, but over the course of the film their relationships evolve.

Braff has a certain kind of calming and peaceful effect. It might be from all those years playing J.D. on “Scrubs,” but he knows exactly how to knock you out of your comfort zone and hit you in the feels. “Wish I Was Here” is much more grown up than “Garden State,” but the two films still feel really connected. Aiden is truly full of himself in only the way a failed actor can be, but the film takes time to explore his relationships with his family and loved ones, which is the opposite of “Garden State,” where the main character is looking to connect with a pretty girl to feel better. Both characters are narcissistic and in need of a lot of help, but “Wish I Was Here” has a little bit more wisdom to it and shows its years.

Braff uses the film to tackle intense themes such as mortality and religion and is a little heavy handed in the drama, but because of his charm, it is easy to overlook. The soundtrack is every bit as award-worthy as his previous one. Indie ballads from Bon Iver, The Shins and even Paul Simon talk of love and loss, soothing you even when you are audibly crying in the theater. (Not that we did that. Someone must have been cutting onions.) The soundtrack brings the entire movie together with a soft balance and a light touch.

One of the weirder aspects of the film is how hard Braff tries to tie in a sci-fi metaphor throughout the film, where he is a futuristic hero with a sword that runs around while Aiden tries to figure out his life. The film could have done without it and the overall theme of masculinity and so-called bravery is lost in an odd super hero tangent.

But it would also be unfair not to mention the wonderful cast of “Wish I Was Here,” especially Mandy Patinkin, who plays Aiden’s father, and Kate Hudson, who plays Aiden’s wife Sarah. They both elevated the movie from something that was born on the internet to a movie that can clearly stand on its own two feet. Josh Gad, Jim Parsons and Donald Faison all play smaller roles, but each is fascinating to watch when interacting with Aiden. This film is mostly for Braff fans, but even naysayers will have to agree that his vision and execution is always timely and honest.

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