In Zach Braff’s recently released indie dramedy, Wish I Was Here, Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a struggling 35 year-old actor whose life is falling apart.
Co-written, directed and starring Braff, Wish I Was Here is a snapshot of family dysfunction and disillusioned suburban dreams.
The brainchild of Braff and his brother, Adam Braff, the film was fully funded by a Kickstarter campaign that lasted only 48 hours before reaching its two million-dollar goal. Despite this initial jump-start, “Wish I Was Here” struggles to meet the authentic quality of Braff’s first indie film, Garden State (2004), for which he is best known.
In suburban Los Angeles, Braff’s character, Aidan, struggles to provide for his wife and two children. Bearing the burden of breadwinner is his wife (Kate Hudson), who endures sexual harassment at her mind-numbing, data-crunching day job. Aidan’s father, Gabe (played by Mandy Patinkin), is a Jewish Orthodox man firmly rooted in traditional gender roles. Gabe misses no opportunity to remind Aidan of his disapproval in quick, cutting quips throughout the film.
To Aidan’s great frustration, his father pays for his grandchildren’s education at his school of choice: an Orthodox yeshiva. Aidan himself was raised as an observant Jew until he left it all behind for “logic,” as he puts it. As a result, Aidan must constantly dodge moral questions from his children (whom he refers to as his “indoctrinated matzah balls”) for which he has no answers.
When Gabe is diagnosed with recurrent lung cancer and can no longer bear the financial drain of the yeshiva, Aidan has no choice but to pull his children out (much to his daughter’s mortification), and begin a disastrous attempt at homeschooling.
Meanwhile, Adian’s brother, Noah (played by Josh Gad)—a 30-something do-nothing who spends all day playing video games in his trailer—refuses to reconcile with their father, despite Gabe’s increasingly critical diagnosis.
Although the plot may seem heavy for a summer release, Braff and existential crisis are familiar friends; from 2001-2010, Braff was known for his role as J.D. on Scrubs, an NBC comedy that regularly questioned the gray morality of everyday life through witty dialogue and slapstick humor. Much of Braff’s familiar comedic timing shines through in Wish I Was Here, delivering laughs on behalf of his character, Aidan, as he grasps for a lifeline in the chaos around him.
There are many long, unforgiving shots of Braff’s red-rimmed eyes, occasionally glazed over with the beginning of tears—whether from grief or frustration, it is difficult to tell. Unable to lead in the way that he should, Aidan is trapped by his own disillusioned apathy.
At times, the plot feels sluggish, even spoon-fed, but there are some strong moments. Patinkin’s slow, steady delivery keeps him at the emotional epicenter of the film, often stealing scenes from other characters when a poignant one-liner is needed. One such moment occurs when Aidan, blindsided by the news that Gabe is dying, asks him for a sliver of hope:
Aidan: What do we do?
Gabe: We move forward. It’s the only direction God gave us.
Woven throughout the film are Aidan’s issues with his seemingly-inescapable Jewish identity. For example, Aidan is plagued by a reccurring memory from his childhood—an obscure, seemingly unimportant memory that he hasn’t thought about in over fourteen years. Confused and concerned, Aidan finally speaks with the children’s rabbi in a moment of desperation:
Aidan: I’m even embarrassed to say this out loud, but… Do you think “God” is trying to tell me something? Trying to guide me, in some way?
Rabbi Rosenberg: You’re getting tangled in semantics. Try not to get tangled-up in the God who wants you to keep kosher, or study the Torah—start with God as [how Aidan thinks of him], and imagine that that force may be trying desperately to guide you through the most challenging part of your life.
Braff’s character (and the audience) is left wondering what this means.
Is God just merely the figment of our imagination? Or is he subject to our own interpretation? Or is there something more?