Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wish I Was Here

Review by Pamela Zoslov

There's a scene in Zach Braff's new movie WISH I WAS HERE in which Braff, playing a struggling actor at an audition, gives a fellow thespian (played by Jim Parsons) some advice on how to play the part. I had the urge to give Braff, who directed the film he co-wrote with his brother, Adam, some advice: Stick with the comedy.

The movie, like so many others, starts strongly. Braff, known for his generation-defining GARDEN STATE and his role on Scrubs, draws on personal experience to portray an upper-middle-class Jewish milieu with knowing, sardonic humor. Braff plays Aidan Bloom, an actor with a wife (Kate Hudson) and two kids. Aidan hasn't had a role for a long time (“since the dandruff commercial”), allowing his wife Sarah to support the family. His father, Saul (Mandy Patinkin) pays the kids' school tuition, on the condition that they attend an Orthodox Jewish day school. Aidan's daughter, Grace (Joey King) loves the school and is more devout than her parents; her goofy younger brother, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) is largely indifferent.

The opening scenes are like a lighter, funnier version of the Coen Brothers' A SERIOUS MAN; a bearded, disapproving rabbi behind a desk, the very secular Aidan alarmed by his daughter's enthusiasm about shaving her head when she's married and wearing a shaytl (wig). Asked to contribute to a fund to plant trees in Israel, Aidan speaks for Jewish schoolkids everywhere by asking, “How many trees do they really need?” Ducking the rabbi after dropping off his daughter at school, Aidan retrieves a roach from his car ashtray and takes a long drag.

Had the movie continued in this vein, I would have been a happy viewer. Unfortunately, Braff and Braff frère seem more enamored of melodrama and big, emotional moments. The screenwriting brothers drown the clever, irreverent comedy promised by those early scenes in sentimental family bonding, emotional reconciliations and deathbed benedictions.

Aidan is beset by problems. He's devastated to learn that his dad has stopped paying the kids' tuition because his cancer has returned and he's decided to have experimental treatments. Dad wants to see Aidan's brother, Noah (Josh Gad), a genius ne'er-do-well, who lives in a slovenly trailer on the beach, tinkers with a blog, and hasn't spoken to his dad in a year.

Now the kids have to be pulled out of the Yeshiva, and the public schools are said to be too low-ranked and dangerous for the Bloom children. Aidan and Sarah decide to home-school the kids, a job for which Aidan is so ill-prepared that Grace, an advanced-placement student, ends up teaching him geometry before the home-schooling idea is abandoned. Aidan decides that he should use the time with his kids to take road trips and fix fences and the family's neglected swimming pool. Aidan has Grace recite poetry while he and Tucker repair the fence – Robert Frost, no less – so it's kind of educational.

Patinkin makes a convincing, if a tad clichéd, Jewish patriarch, and the rest of the cast is equally fine. The portrayal of the Blooms' marriage has surprising depth, as when Sarah, tired of working at a boring data-entry job while Aidan pursues his acting aspirations, complains, “When did this relationship become solely about supporting your dream?” The West Coast domestic milieu is similar to that of Judd Apatow's THIS IS 40, but Braff's version actually feels more true.

There are so many good things in this film, one wishes it had received better shaping. It's a mulligatawny of ethnic comedy, social satire, melodrama, sci-fi fantasy, and aimless subplots about Noah attending Comic Con and Sarah being harassed by a co-worker's penis-themed chatter. The project, which was crowd-funded on Kickstarter, tastes like the broth of too many cooks. 3 out of 4 stars.

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