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Self-absorption dressed up as romanticism

  • 02 October 2014

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.