Self-absorption dressed up as romanticism


Wish I Was Here (M). Director: Zach Braff. Starring: Josh Gad, Ashley Greene. 107 minutes

Talk about your big disappointments. I'd been a fan of Zach Braff's work on the cult noughties comedy series Scrubs and on his feature filmmaking debut, 2004's Garden State. As an actor, writer and director Braff has always proved adept at balancing goofy wit and whimsy with warmth and even, occasionally, profundity.

I had no real qualms then about chipping in to his Kickstarter campaign to fund his follow up to Garden State; notwithstanding the backlash he received, as a wealthy man using his high profile to (arguably) exploit his fans — and the very concept of crowd funding — for pride and profit. I was easy enough with being exploited. The disappointment came with the discovery that the movie is crap.
Braff stars as Aidan, a 35-year-old out-of-work actor. His wife, Sarah (Hudson), works an excruciating data entry job to support both him and their two cute and quirky kids, Tucker (Gagnon) and Grace (King). That the man-child Aidan apparently believes Sarah is living her dream while he traipses from one failed audition to another chasing his own reflects the depths of his self-delusion.

Aidan’s father Gabe (Patinkin), meanwhile, has cancer, and has just blown the last of his savings on a failed experimental treatment. Those savings had been going towards Tucker and Grace’s education at a private Jewish school (something upon which he insisted). Gabe is just one of the characters in this film who, in vain, tell Aidan it’s time to grow up and start supporting his family.

Aidan’s solution? He decides to take the kids’ education into his own hands. He calls this ‘home schooling’, but it pretty much consists of taking them for trips into the desert or conning the salesman at a luxury car dealership (Scrubs co-star Donald Faison in an entirely wasted cameo) into letting them take a car for a spin, while spouting trite platitudes about life, death and the getting of wisdom.

It’s not that the film is entirely charmless. Braff nails a few good gags (at the end of his tether, Aidan spies a brochure stand labelled “This pamphlet will save your life”; it is empty). His repartee with Tucker and Grace is frequently authentic and entertaining. And his conversation with a Rabbi about the existence of God is disarmingly frank for a mainstream film, even if its insights are trite.

But the film is plotless; a collection of frayed ends rather than tightly woven threads. And it is almost impossible to sympathise with Aidan and his flailing ‘dream’, especially when there is nothing in the film to suggest that he even has any particular talent as an actor. This is self-absorption dressed up as romanticism, and Braff does not always seem to be aware of the distinction.

The film features a motif of Aidan dressed as a sword-wielding space warrior; a returned childhood fantasy in which Aidan imagined himself as a hero. ‘But what if we are the ones who need to be saved?’ he muses. This is insincere. Aidan, really, is just trying to find other ways to be heroic. The film explores what it is to be a son/husband/father/man, and in so doing reinforces patriarchal norms.

For example, Aidan confronts Sarah’s workplace sexual harasser in a supermarket, despite her expressly demanding that he not do so. We are expected to accept that he is entitled to her dream, even at the expense of his children’s education and his wife’s happiness. It’s white male wish fulfilment, pure and simple, albeit spilt through the sieve of suburban middle-class angst.

Braff attempts to seem enlightened, but doesn’t succeed. Sure, Sarah’s harasser, Jerry (Weston), is an odious creep who gets his comeuppance. On the other hand, Aidan’s slovenly, self-involved brother Noah (Gadd) is able to have sex with a cute ‘geek’ girl simply by being rude to her and then designing a cool costume to wear to a comic convention. Talk about your male wish fulfilment fantasies.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff, movies, home schooling



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Existing comments

Interesting review. Hmm a pity the movie is crap. On the subject of home schooled children - I used to be suspicious of it all - but now that I've met several home schooled children as adults, I am quite impressed - they have a courtesy, joy and focus that I have not expected of most teenagers. They do well post school in jobs. They tend to come from big families and tend to take the desire for big families into their own marriage plans. From a variety of religious backgrounds, they are kicking the demographic trend. Someone should do a good doco on them.

Skye | 02 October 2014  

That may be because you can't just take your kids out of school. You have to register them to homeschool them, and then actually educate them. So any parent willing to do that is probably pretty committed to their kids. The trailer looked inspiring, the review has definitely put me off. :( Shame.

Graham | 08 October 2014  

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