Wish I Was Here film review

September 18, 2014

Wish I Was Here(This film review of “Wish I Was Here” appeared in – in a shorter form – in the Australian Jewish News on September 18, 2014.)

Directed by Zach Braff

Written by Zach and Adam Braff

Starring Zach Braff, Josh Gad, Pierce Gagnon, Kate Hudson, Joey King and Mandy Patinkin

Remarkably few films portray Jews living a Jewish life, married to other Jews and bringing their kids up Jewish. Most American – and Australian – Jewish life takes place in the suburbs, but few film-makers have set Jewish-themed films there. American Jewish actor-writer-director Zach Braff (“Garden State”) has now made a notable contribution to this thin genre in “Wish I Was Here”.

Braff writes, directs and co-stars in this film as struggling actor Aidan Bloom, and is joined by the ever watchable Mandy Patinkin as his father Gabe, Josh Gad as his nerdy brother Noah, Kate Hudson as his long-suffering wife Sarah, and Joey King and Pierce Gagnon as his 12 year old daughter Grace and son Tucker.

Set in suburban Los Angeles, “Wish I Was Here” tackles big issues: parental disappointment, chasing illusive dreams, dealing with professional failure, and death and dying. That the film engages with all of these issues in a thoroughly Jewish context marks “Wish I Was Here” as one of the most notable “Jewish” films of our not-yet-half-over decade. That Braff’s film is also deeply flawed through loose writing, misplaced attempts at humour and some odd Jewish representations is unfortunate.

The main characters in “Wish I Was Here” – all of whom are Jewish (when’s the last time you saw that? probably in “A Serious Man” from the Coen brothers) are quirky and delightful. Patinkin has now shifted his screen persona to the wise but flawed Jewish elder (also see “Homeland”), and he’s on full show here. Antisocial brother Noah – living alone in a trailer above Malibu Beach – is a fabulous invention, slowly adding increased depth to the film. And in Joey King (“Ramona and Beeezus”) and Pierce Gagnon (the telekinetic kid from “Looper”), Braff has cast two excellent and uninhibited child actors.

Ironically, the acting falls down in one of the film’s key relationships: Aidan and Sarah are married, but their clichéd and under-written scenes makes it seem like they are sometimes appearing in two different movies. He’s the actor who can’t get a new role; she supports the family through a dead-end job with the Water Department, trying to “enable” his dream. They love each other, but I hardly believed they were even in a relationship. Braff’s a likeable guy, but here his passive and depressive character is just about the least interesting in the film.

Similarly, the Jewish “stuff” is a great try, but some of it falls flat. Both kids attend an Orthodox day school (“Hillel Yeshiva”) and young Grace is particularly religious. Except so many of the details are wrong (I didn’t notice a rabbinical advisor in the credits): one rabbi chides Aidan for not coming to “Temple” – surely the American Orthodox reference would be “shul” or “synagogue”, not the Reform/Conservative “Temple” term. Braff also does not know how to present the elderly white-bearded rabbinical leader: is he for laughs, or for taking seriously? I’m still not certain, and this uneven tone imbues much of the film. Why would Grandpa Gabe insist and pay for their studying in a Yeshiva rather than the more typical American Conservative day school? He may be steeped in Jewish tradition and own a dog named “Kugel”, but he does not strike me as a man committed to Yeshiva.

For these reasons, I was ready to go away disappointed from “Wish I Was Here”. But somehow Braff manages to pull the film together in the last half. He drops the lame humour and organises most of his characters to connect in emotionally satisfying ways. The Bloom family’s historical hurts are carefully revealed, and the film gels, in part because Braff gets out of the way and lets the talented Patinkin, Hudson, King and Gad move onto centre stage. This quartet saves the film and shows how a pretty good film might have been a great one, given the chance.

(Film notes:  Zach Braff co-wrote this film with his brother Adam, who did in fact attend a Yeshiva as they were growing up.  And the film presents just that:  an adolescent perspective on Orthodox Judaism, just the way the Braff brothers probably remember it.  What a shame they couldn’t have tried harder.)

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Books that made an impact

September 13, 2014

Not long ago, I was “challenged” on Facebook (simultaneously from Israel and Washington, D.C.) to list ten books that have impacted me in some way, with the following rules: only take a few minutes to pick the books, they don’t need to be great works of literature, but books that have stayed with you. So here’s my book list. It’s not chronological, just the order that they came to me.

“A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway: I adored Hemingway when I was in high school. Spare, muscular prose, very “male”. But yet “A Farewell to Arms” is terribly romantic. I remember this as his best.

“The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand: Ayn Rand is, admittedly, one of the darling authors of the far libertarian right. This 1943 best-seller is about an architect, Howard Roark, and his striving to express his individualism. Dynamite stuff when you are 17.

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt: Probably the best American college “campus” novel I have read. Neatly captures life at a school (Bennington in Vermont, where I visited once, so I could picture the setting), but adds an intellectual mystery thriller. Great prose, highly engaging, strong characters. I envy people who have not read it already: an experience awaits.

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs: I am one of many for whom Jane Jacobs is an icon. This 1961 polemic attacks the excesses of urban renewal, and voices the joys of mixed neighbourhoods such as New York City’s Greenwich Village. I read it in my first year of graduate urban planning study at UC Berkeley and will never forget it. Do you think Jane Jacobs is outdated? No way, There’s a fascinating current literature analysing her still.

“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard is also a UC Berkeley revelation, assigned in a design social factors course by my then teacher and mentor Clare Cooper-Marcus, a landscape architecture professor of uncommon ability, insight and depth. I still have my original copy; it sits about two meters from where I write. What is this book? An poetic essay on nature or a spiritual autobiography? Both and more. The subtitle is “a mystical excursion into the natural world.” It is.

“Flicker” by Theodore Roszak is, genuinely, one of the creepiest books I have read. Roszak is a historian, sociologist and a philosopher who taught at Cal State Hayward. He is best-known for his “The Making of a Counterculture”, but he clearly loved film – thus this book. This mystery – loosely based on the life of film critic Pauline Kael – is, thrillingly, back in print. Unbeatable.

“Stop-Time” by Pat Conroy is one of those novels you read at age 19 and never forget. I did and I have not. It’s sitting on my bedside table for a re-read right now.

“Goodbye Columbus” by Philip Roth has influenced me in more ways than I can count. I am happy to say that I was an early predictor of Roth’s later success, based on this book. I adored “Goodbye Columbus”, and I equally adored the 1969 movie version starring Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin. Who else has captured suburban American Jewish life better than Roth? Like Woody Allen in film, Roth has covered so much territory that almost every American-Jewish author since gets compared to him. This is his first book, and although possibly not his best, it is one of his most autobiographical.  Here’s more of what I have to say about Roth’s books and influence.

“An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” by Neal Gabler: Some books set you on a twenty year quest. This one did for me. This is, in essence, a “group biography” of early Hollywood Jewish moguls who started film studios. I used Gabler’s thesis for years in my lectures on American Jewish film history, and it has underpinned my film reviewing for the “Australian Jewish News” for more than 25 years.

“The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” by Malcolm Gladwell. The world falls into two categories of people: those who love Malcolm Gladwell, and those who are not yet aware of his work. The second category is getting smaller every day. I am part of the first. My copy of “The Tipping Point” is still heavily annotated. I used it for my PhD thesis; I have referred to it in almost every job I have done since it was first published in 2000. I even have a “Gladwell” category on this blog. Need I say more?

Four women and six men: not a bad gender breakdown. Five novels – although all of them published before 1993; one autobiography (Conroy), one impassioned essay on urbanism (Jacobs), one historical group biography (Gabler), one poetic meditation (Dillard) and one marketing/social psychology/”new age” business book (Gladwell).