In 2004, actor Zach Braff released his directorial debut Garden State and subsequently became one of Hollywood’s most polarizing actors. His years on the cult-classic series Scrubs seemed to all but disappear from memory, with viewers now only judging Braff’s work and worth as an actor on whether they loved or hated Garden State (the number of people in the middle seems to be infinitely smaller than those in the aforementioned groups).
The similarities between Garden State and Wish I Was Here are easy to identify. Braff again plays a struggling actor who is dealing with the death of a parent, this time with the incredible Mandy Patinkin as Braff’s dying and disapproving father.
The checklist of trademark Braffisms that have come to be expected since the release of Garden State are present in Wish I Was Here. The soundtrack is full of indie darling tunes that are begging to be blasted through earbuds while the listener is in the midst of an existential moment. Braff’s famous friends, including Jim Parsons and Donald Faison, have small, but endearing roles. Moments of dark and subtle humour are sprinkled throughout the film, giving viewers a moment of reprieve from scenes of heartache that come with films that involve losing a loved one.
But with Braff’s new film, growth from the director is evident, with characters that are easier to relate to and speak to a wider audience than Garden State.
In Wish I Was Here, Braff’s Aidan is going through a quarter-life crisis, with his dreams of being an actor left unrealized while his wife, played by Kate Hudson in her most effortlessly vulnerable and charming role since Almost Famous, toils away in a job she hates with a cubicle mate who is sexually harassing her.
Like Garden State, Braff’s protagonist wishes for a life more worldly, though this time around, he has children, a wife, and a father to act as examples of how extraordinary a so-called ordinary life can be.
Searching for one’s own identity is a huge theme in the film. Braff’s on-screen daughter, played by scene-stealer Joey King, is trying to find her teenage identity somewhere between the cute boy down the street and her education from the yeshivas. Meanwhile, Braff’s brother, played in a pleasantly understated role by Josh Gad, has been paralyzed by his mother’s death and his father’s disappointment in his lack of success. Braff’s Aidan is refusing to let go of his dream to become an actor, while his father is refusing to let go of his anger towards his sons and what he sees as their decision to be underachievers.
At first glance it may seem like it’s Aidan who rallies at the last minute to pull the family together, but in reality, it’s the women around him who put everything into perspective and help the men in the family see past their own selfishness and self-pity to move forward in their personal plights.
With Wish I Was Here, Braff dares to take common, everyday experiences and find beauty in them, hoping that’s enough for viewers to connect. Dreams aren’t always realized. Parental expectations aren’t always met. Cancer can really suck. Is Braff guilty of waxing poetic maybe one too many times in his films? Sure. But is it so bad to stop, slow down, and be present in the tiny moments that shape our lives? I don’t think so.