Hating Zach Braff was in fashion long before the actor/director launched a Kickstarter campaign for his long-awaited sophomore effort, but the way he went about funding his follow-up to 2004’s “Garden State” really got under some people’s skin. (Oddly enough, Rob Thomas’ “Veronica Mars” movie received infinitely less criticism despite starting the whole fad.) But while Braff may have been unfairly judged for the way he raised the money to make the film, it’s a wonder why he had to resort to crowdsourcing at all, because “Wish I Was Here” is a confident, funny and heartfelt tragicomedy that, although not without its blemishes, proves Braff is more than just a one-hit wonder.
Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor whose wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) is the sole breadwinner of the family, supporting him and their two children (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) with her drab, government job while he’s off pursuing his dream. But when his father (Mandy Pantinkin) is no longer able to pay the children’s private school tuition because he needs the money for an experimental cancer treatment, Aidan agrees to homeschool the kids rather than place them in the city’s awful public school system. The problem is that Aidan isn’t exactly fit to be a teacher (hence the grammatical error in the film’s title), so instead, he takes them on a series of “field trips” meant to impart life lessons that help him rediscover his own identity in the process.
As corny as that sounds, “Wish I Was Here” is an incredibly poignant movie that’s equal parts sentimental and existential, and succeeds largely thanks to its excellent cast. Braff does a solid job as the main protagonist, although it’s easy to imagine a better actor doing more with the part, while Mandy Patinkin and Joey King (who’s steadily proving herself to be one of the best young talents in the business) both deliver great supporting work as Aidan’s judgmental, orthodox father and ultra-religious daughter, respectively. Josh Gad is also good in a small but pivotal role as Aidan’s nerdy genius brother, but it’s Kate Hudson who is the film’s most pleasant surprise, turning in her finest performance since “Almost Famous.” Hudson’s character is on the outside looking in for most of the movie, but she still manages to leave her mark as the glue that holds the entire family together, and that’s a credit to her acting as well as the screenplay by Braff and his older brother Adam.
The script is nothing special, and it even borders on schmaltzy at times, but there’s an honesty to the material (especially the father-son relationship) that some people will connect to more than others. Fans of “Garden State” will also notice that although Braff hasn’t matured much as a filmmaker – he stills relies on indie rock-fueled montages and eccentric visual gags – “Wish I Was Here” is a more grown-up movie thematically, exploring a range of topics like morality, sacrifice, family and fatherhood. Some of those themes may be handled in a slightly pandering manner, and the fantasy sequences featuring Aidan as a space adventurer are a little too on the nose, yet there’s an innate sweetness to the film that compensates for its lack of subtlety. “Wish I Was Here” probably won’t strike the same generational nerve as Braff’s debut (it’s less about a certain time in your life than life in general), but not every movie has to be Important to be a success, and hopefully that doesn’t take him another ten years to figure out.