Wish I Was Here, the movie that actor and second-time director Zach Braff partially funded with money raised through Kickstarter, isn’t nearly terrible enough to satisfy all the grumblers who are hoping to see it fail. When Braff couldn’t secure traditional financing for the film, he appealed to the fan base he’d built up over nine seasons of Scrubs, asking them to donate cash so he could make the movie exactly as he wanted it made. Disgruntled interwebsters complained: Wasn’t Braff rich, or at least a guy with connections? Couldn’t he just make the movie, using the spare change wedged between his sofa cushions? Was it fair to take money from loyal supporters who wouldn’t receive a share of the profits if the film became a surprise hit? The outcry grew louder when, just after Braff easily hit his $2 million Kickstarter goal (and then some), Worldview Entertainment appeared on the scene and added millions of dollars to Braff’s kitty in the form of gap financing, basically a bridging loan predicated on future foreign sales.
There are plenty of carving knives out for Braff, and for Wish I Was Here. The reality is that it’s disappointingly OK, a movie made by a guy who had one indie success a decade ago — the reasonably appealing Garden State — but who hasn’t been able to get a movie financed since. Braff had something to say — about the ways the loss of a parent can both rattle and redefine us, for one thing — and not enough money to say it. He also wanted the freedom to choose the actors he wanted to work with, as opposed to those whose star power could offer investors the highest return. The vitriol directed at Braff suggests that traditional methods of film financing are somehow more artistically pure, and nothing could be further from the truth.
Wish I Was Here is at least stretching toward something, and even if its reach exceeds its grasp, Braff’s earnest determination as a filmmaker and performer helps smooth out some of the awkward bumps. Braff plays Aidan, a desperately unemployed actor trying hard to live and work in Los Angeles. Wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) essentially supports him and the couple’s two children, Joey King’s Grace and Pierce Gagnon’s Tucker, with her tedious job at the water authority, where she tolerates an insidious form of sexual harassment from a co-worker. When she finally complains to her boss, he tells her to “lighten up.”
But that’s hardly the beginning of the couple’s problems: Aidan’s cantankerous father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), is dying of cancer. He tries an experimental treatment that drains his bank account, which means he can no longer afford Grace and Tucker’s private-school tuition. (He has agreed to bankroll the grandkids’ education as long as they’re sent to yeshiva, a plot detail that occasions some rather splendid slapstick ancient-rabbi humor, including a gag about “the YouTubes.”) Aidan and Sarah aren’t particularly religious, or even vaguely spiritual, which is just one reason they feel blindsided by the looming death of a parent: In one late scene, they lament that they don’t know how to explain death, or the possibility of an afterlife, to their kids because they don’t know what they believe themselves. Aidan’s lone brother, Noah (Josh Gad), isn’t much comfort: He’s an awkward, asocial nerd who hasn’t spoken to Gabe in more than a year, and makes no move to do so even when Aidan lays out their father’s prognosis.
If Braff is guilty of anything, it’s of sending the story sprawling in too many directions at once. (He co-wrote the script with his brother, Adam.) He opens the movie with some fantasy–voice-over folderol about how he and his brother used to pretend they were superheroes capable of saving the world. The next scene, in which Braff’s Aidan swears freely at the breakfast table in front of his children — and rails against their demand that he drop a dollar in the swear jar — is much better. Braff neglects some crucial or at least just potentially interesting story threads, like the fact that daughter Grace, seemingly modern in all other ways, has embraced all the religious stuff she’s learned at school and is looking forward to someday shaving her head for her husband. That conflict is never fully resolved. And there are too many places where Braff indulges Aidan’s childish self-absorption. Aidan suffers from the “hang-onto-your-dreams” syndrome, big-time — we’re probably supposed to side with him when grouchy old Gabe urges him to drop the acting thing and get a real job so he can support his family but damned if Pops isn’t right. Aidan refuses to see it, at least until the bitter end.
But if you can get past his occasional whininess, Braff is adequately sympathetic in Wish I Was Here. Aidan is well past the age when he needs to realize that his man-child pout won’t get him everything he wants, and once in a while, you see that recognition hit: Braff’s half–zonked-out demeanor gives way to something more adult, a layer or two of gravitas we haven’t seen in him before. No matter how Braff paid for Wish I Was Here, there have been far worse sins committed in the name of filmmaking. How many dollars does he have to put in the swear jar before we’ll forgive him?