(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.)