Cinematic Releases: Wish I Was Here

Greg reviews Braff's latest film, Wish I Was Here.

It's been ten long years since Garden State, a film made in an era where quirky for the sake of quirky was seen as 'edgy,' or as Zach Braff's Aiden would say, "unique and amazing”.

Well, for his second film, he attempts to do the same thing, except the independent film world has become a lot less forgiving of quirk when done in this apparent manner.

As a triple threat, Zach Braff writes, directs, and stars in this film. He’s not bad at any of them, but it feels like he spread himself a little too thin. He seems to want to create a multi-layered film covering a vast array of topics and characters. While he gets points for being ambitious, he doesn’t expand upon the topics and the characters are left being shallow, half-assed caricatures. When he tries to wrap up each story, and the characters finally come together, nothing feels smart. In fact, it feels rather unintelligent and disorganized.

"This is my 'Zach you're not
as cool as you think
you are' look."
A major problem of the film is the feeling that this is about white, elitist, male, first-world problems. It may not be the intention, and I’m sure this came from a deep place in Zach Braff’s heart, but he doesn't have enough experience as a director yet. He doesn't know how to shape the way the audience views the film through the way he frames shots and commands characters. As a film, it could be compared to Steve McQueen’s Shame. That film could have easily been misconstrued as one that said, “a rich, sexy man and his well off sister are very sad! Look at their money and their tears!” The material, in lesser hands, easily (and probably would have) been viewed in that manner. But, with McQueen’s sure and stable hands, Shame turned it into a tragic tale, where the audience felt they could sympathize with both characters despite their flaws.

However, Zach Braff is no Steve McQueen. He does not (yet!) have the ability to turn his characters into anything other than sniveling, spoiled brats. While some lines are delivered with arresting sincerity, most feel contrived. Fake. Fabricated. It doesn’t help that Braff’s dialogue feels like he set off to make it as quirky as he possibly could.

A gripe with the film I personally have, and I’m sure others do as well, is a scene that has been shown all over the advertising campaign. I already linked to it in the first paragraph, but this deserves to be talked about. The scene I’m talking about is the “unique and amazing” scene where Braff’s daughter gets a wig after shaving her head. The scene takes place in a wig shop and Zach Braff tells her to buy one, as long as it’s “as unique and amazing” as she is. That line is laughably awful, but it’s not the real problem. Early on in the film Braff tells his daughter that she would look even more beautiful if she shaved her head. When she shaves her head, her parents freak out. Braff seems horrified. So, he gets her the wig. This really struck a negative chord with me, making me not like Braff for the rest of the film. He speaks about individuality and beauty, but when traditional ideas of beauty (the long hair she had) are subverted, he flips out and she is to cover it up with a wig. What makes it worse is that the film shows this, the whole ‘covering up’ thing, as something good. It’s the wig that’s unique and amazing, not the person wearing it.

"Katy Perry called. She wants
her  'quirky' wig back, bitch."
Scenes like this one are scattered throughout the film; ones that make it feel like Braff wrote a draft then rushed to production because he just really wanted to shoot something that would look pretty. Which it does. He and director of photography, Lawrence Sher, shoot a beautiful looking film, show the potential the digital age’s indie films can achieve in terms of look. It’s unfortunate really, because it would have been nice to have seen something of substance beneath such a gorgeous veneer.

The sound design and other technical parts of the film are top notch across the board. Even the soundtrack is good (especially the end-credits song, “So Now What” by The Shins).

And the acting is fine. Pierce Gagnon (the kid from Looper) plays the annoying little kid. Jim Parsons, who usually aggravates me, is great in a bit part. Being one of the only actors who rises above the material given to her, Joey King is the standout. Kate Hudson phones in another performance (it seems we won’t get another Almost Famous level performance out of her), but I don’t I think I could call her bad.

Yet, none of that really matters. I’m a firm believer in auteur theory, meaning that the director is the sole author a film. There may be many skilled and talented collaborators working with him, but when someone like Zach Braff is in charge, his level of skill will determine how the film will turn out. In the case of Wish I Was Here, the level of skill wasn’t exactly high.

-Greg Dinskisk