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Wish I Was Here

Here are two things I don’t get:

1. The effect Garden State, Zach Braff’s first film as a writer-director had on many people. I know that I saw it, moderately enjoyed it, barely remember it. Yet people younger than me (a number growing by the second, which is how those things work) seem to regard it as a, if not the, defining film of their generation. Guess I should rewatch it one of these days. (Though I’d rather watch a re-run of Scrubs, maybe the last decent network sitcom.)

2. Why so many people were outraged that Braff ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund his follow-up film, Wish I Was Here. He raised $3 million, which I imagine was only initial funding to get it off the ground. But so many bloggers reacted as if he was taking money away from other struggling filmmakers. It’s not like it’s a zero-sum game.

But the film is here, and if it’s unlikely to have the same effect on his generation that Garden State did, it’s a respectable effort, not without its flaws but with a lot to like. Braff stars as Aidan Bloom, father of two children in a Los Angeles suburb. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) is the family breadwinner as he pursues his dream of being an actor. The dream seems to be running faster than he can keep up with: his last job was a dandruff commercial, and it doesn’t appear that he’s ever had a substantial role after 15 years of auditions.

Things start to unwind when his father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), who has been living with cancer, takes a turn for the worse. He had been funding his grandchildren’s private school educations, but now needs the money for medical care. Aidan’s house of cards begins to collapse as he realizes his family needs more than he has been providing.

Braff wrote the script with his brother, and while it has its share of humor the tone is more dramatic. It’s nothing if not earnest: I never felt that Braff was going for an emotion simply to manipulate the audience.

The film is filled with individually strong scenes. There’s an especially good one with Sarah and Gabe chatting in his hospital room that made me think there’s hope for Hudson’s career after all. (After the Larry David HBO movie Clear History I’d pretty much written her off.)

The downside is that Braff and bro bite off more than they can chew, at least in a single film. Aidan’s career dream doesn’t really gain our sympathy, even dramatically it’s just an entrance point to a generally perceptive portrait of middle-class family. Some pieces are tangents that don’t add much to the whole; some ideas get repeated more than they needed. And Braff really needs to curb his impulse to punctuate everything with a song.

It’s nice that he got to do exactly the film he wanted. But sometimes having someone watching over your shoulder to advise you isn’t a bad thing.

Opens Friday at the Eastern Hills Cinema.

Watch the trailer for Wish I was Here

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