Us Weekly's film critic Mara Reinstein is currently surveying all the offering at Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah and dispatches this review of Zach Braff's latest directorial effort.
3 stars out of 4
First, a message to the 46,520 people who donated money on Kickstarter last year to help Zach Braff fund his movie Wish I Was Here: You made a wise investment.
And to those who thought Braff was out of line asking for a hand-out, be satisfied in knowing that his second directorial effort — which made its world premiere on January 18 at the Sundance Film Festival — is just as emotionally rich and heartfelt as his 2004 coming of age classic Garden State.
No Shins music, quirky Natalie Portman or quarter-life crisis this time. But Braff’s Aiden Bloom could easily pass as the late-30s version of his disillusioned GS character. He’s a struggling actor with a wife (Kate Hudson) and two kids to support in suburban L.A., and his only recent work involved playing the “before” guy in a dandruff commercial. The fragile nature of this domesticity falls to pieces when his gruff-but-loving dad (Mandy Patinkin) tells him that his cancer has returned and he can no longer afford to subsidize his grandkids’ education at a tony Jewish day school. Giving up on his acting dream is off the table; so is sending the kids to the local crappy public school. The last-resort solution: Home school.
The drama (which Braff also co-wrote with his brother Adam) gets off a few too many easy laughs illustrating Aiden’s sheer exasperation at teaching his bright, eager-to-learn teen daughter and restless young son. (He dismisses geometry by promising that the math is useless. The man does have a point.) When book smarts fail him, he says he’s pulling "a Mr. Miyagi” and instructs them to fix a fence.
Braff is more interested in exploring life’s lessons. And boy, does he delve deep. With his father dying, Aiden faces his apathetic attitude about his religion and grapples at how to pass along his morals to his own kids. As he explains to a Rabbi, he can’t stop envisioning a childhood fantasy in which he’s a spaceman superhero saving the world. What does it all mean? The answers, at times, arrive with a heavy-handed touch. (No character is above sermonizing.). Give Braff credit for at least having the courage to go there.
A fine crew of supporting actors, including Josh Gad, Joey King, and Braff’s ole’ Scrubs pal Donald Faison, helps him along the journey. And Hudson, an Oscar nominee reduced to Glee appearances in recent years, delivers her most meaty and authentic performance in eons. She’s the wife who, amid the family’s setbacks, chooses to behave like a level-headed adult. The cast’s chemistry comes together in beautiful ways late in the film. Put it this way: Any deathbed scene can elicit tears. It’s a special one that elicits tears and makes you question your own mortality and beliefs.
Indeed, even if you didn’t help subsidize the movie, don’t go in without first investing in some Kleenex.