Remember Garden State? The emotive, tightly-scripted feature debut by Zach Braff? He’s not a one-trick pony, but he’s ridden the same horse into town.
‘Wish I Was Here’ is the story of Aidan Bloom (Braff) getting through life as a struggling actor and loyal family man to wife Sarah (Kate Hudson), children, brother and father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin). As funds run dry Aidan has to struggle to keep his kids in Jewish day school while pursuing his dream of making it big in Hollywood, further complicated by Sarah being harassed at work, pre-teens and Gabe’s health.
As with the Coen Brother’s ‘A Simple Man’ and to lesser acclaim ‘The Hebrew Hammer,’ the film plays up it’s Jewish roots and delves into religious culture and belief. Synagogues provide some set-space for the movie and there are lengthy debates about religious observance. Much of ‘Wish I Was Here’ is dedicated to Bloom challenging and reasoning with theology and his own personal morality while navigating the personal mess and tragedy that is his life. In this way the film is much like Garden State, though Braff’s latest is significantly more lighthearted, including a sub-plot with his brother trying to impress a neighbour by designing an elaborate costume for comic-con.
In spite of this the film devolves into dialogue (usually Braff’s) constantly edifying the other characters on his moral philosophy and new-found direction. For instance, when his brother dons his costume head-piece, Aidan manages to find hidden meaning in the empty fish-bowl by linking the prop with his brother’s isolation.This doesn’t stop at Aidan with Sarah pointedly comparing her life and struggles for her family to a treadmill she can’t get off. Towards the latter half of the film almost every scene has a pearl of wisdom and by necessity involves some character coming to terms with something. Its a new movie, but it feels a lot like Braff’s previous efforts in ‘Garden State.’
Tennessee Williams was notorious for writing the same play over and over again, and even more notorious because people kept going to see them. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ ‘The Glass Menagerie,’ and ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ are quite literal in their depiction of Williams’ relationship with his sister and her struggles with mental illness. The latter, along with plays like ‘Camino Real,’ differed from ‘Streetcar’ and the playwright’s more successful efforts because they were less reliant on stilted dialogue or overt symbolism, nor were they reliant on the 1930’s MGM series of ‘message films’ formula where a character ostensibly articulated the moral focus at the end of the feature, usually encapsulated by the film’s title itself.
Braff has made a visibly similar work to ‘Garden State,’ which is not in and of itself a fault or something to shy away from; if you’ve got something that works, that is entertaining and which people keep coming to see then all power to you. ‘Wish I Was Here’ however suffers from obvious symbolism and awkwardly articulated metaphors which Braff inserts into the dialogue in order to drive his point home. It comes across as the follow-up to Braff’s ‘Streetcar.’
There are scenes where the symbolism makes the film seem repetitive and familiar with some moments feeling both forced and derived from caricature. There’s one scene where Aidan and his family literally go out into the desert to experience an epiphany; another where they are coming to terms with their new selves while driving a fancy convertible down the highway along the coast, wind in their hair and arms flying in the air. There’s even a reference to the Karate Kid and Mr Miyagi, in addition to a scene where the metaphor of sink or swim for one character is taken very literally.
‘Wish I Was Here’ is nevertheless distinct from ‘Garden State’ in that the epiphany and self-realization for Aidan stem from religion, with Braff portraying a struggle to both understand and accept religion, an arc not unfamiliar to those who had the pleasure of seeing ‘Brideshead Revisited.’
Braff hasn’t strayed from his formula and has built on his initial success with his exploration of religion to grow his Garden State into a Garden Nation, consisting of distinct films clearly identifiable as a greater whole. As with any garden, if you plant two things too close together, they won’t grow. Braff has a formula which makes his films grow, deservedly, and it will be interesting to see how far the next apple falls from the tree.