Overview: An aspiring actor struggles to pay for his children’s tuition and finds out his father is dying of cancer. Worldview Entertainment/Focus Features; 2014; Rated R; 106 Minutes.
An Unflattering Connection: When I was in my teens and early twenties, I had a friend who had a morbid fascination with predicting the more ceremonious aspects of his own death. The most common manifestation of this activity was in his telling anyone who would listen what songs he wished to be played at his funeral. I remember he did this once after an actual funeral for a family member of another friend. I also remember feeling very embarrassed for him, embarrassed because he could not recognize how self-centered he was in taking an actual tragedy and using it to shamelessly discuss something as petty as his own melodramatic musical tastes. I share this anecdote because I felt the exact same sense of embarrassment for Zach Braff no less than eight times during Wish I Was Here. There are plenty of opportunities for emotional resonance in this film. Namely, the scenes with Aidan (Braff) and his dying father (Mandy Patinkin). These exchanges should require nothing more than straightforward film technique to establish poignancy by way of basic human empathy, but each time the tinge of relate-able emotion starts to develop, Braff forces another musical cue, instructing the audience on what to feel and how hard to feel it, completely undercutting the shared personal emotion between his characters and his audience. It is embarrassing that Braff can’t focus his narrative perspective on real human tragedy as he instead makes it about his iPod playlist and his self-pitying manchild avatar’s identity crisis.
Not Without Merit: At times, Braff certainly displays a knack for arranging color and geometry within a frame, but given his insistence on holding center in both shot and story, all I’m really saying with that compliment is that he’s good at taking self portraits. This film’s greatest strength comes by way of two of its supporting performances. Patinkin is predictably effective as the dying father, and young Joey King stars as Aidan’s devoutly Jewish daughter. It’s a shame that Braff’s story is largely unconcerned with the sincerity that these two bring to their roles. That isn’t to say there isn’t some sincerity in the script penned by Braff and his brother Adam; there seems to be an element of familial truth all through this story. I believe there is honesty of intent and presentation in this movie (consider, for example, that this is Braff’s second film and his second about a struggling actor pathetically trying to find himself). I just find those honest contemplations to be laughable at their best, and disgustingly juvenile at their worst– the worst being when the movie senselessly includes a voiceover reading of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in the midst of a self-discovery camping trip, which, again, is taken by a 35 year old man worried about “who he is” while his father is dying.
A Note About Funding: Braff funded this movie to the tune of millions by starting a campaign on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. I’ll fight the urge to say anything critical about even an established and connected artist doing what is necessary to see his vision through. Good on him for making it work. But his written assertion that he funded his film this way to avoid “signing away all… artistic control” is self-inflated, garbage sales technique. This explanation suggests there is something fresh, edgy, or daring about this movie. There is not. It is wholly unoriginal, but, given the democratic nature of Kickstarter, it is exactly the elaborate, boring, extended music video that donators deserve. There was never evidence that Braff was capable of anything but that.