Zach Braff's 'Wish I Was Here' Is A Real Crowd Pleaser [Sundance 2014 Review]

Zach Braff's Wish I Was Here is now infamous because of the controversy surrounding Braff's Kickstarter campaign. But let's not allow that to cloud the real picture –Braff's fans coughed up $3.1 million for his second feature film because they loved his first movie. Garden State connected with teens and college-aged twenty somethings in a manner that rarely happens, almost in the way that a song or a poem connects, rather than a movie. Fans have been waiting over a decade for Braff to go back behind the camera for a follow-up. This year at Sundance they got it.Wish I Was Here is a real crowd pleaser, earning a standing ovation at the Premiere screening at Park City's The Marc theatre. The film is very funny; when the lights came up I was hurting from laughter and sniffling a bit. (Must have been the cold temperature of Utah, right? Yeah that has to be the reason...) It is my favorite movie of Sundance this year (thus far).Wish is a more mature film than Braff's feature directing debut, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival eleven years ago. The film, which Braff co-wrote with his brother Adam, is a meditative and touching look at the next steps after the quarter life crisis we saw in Braff's first film. Its not a sequel in any sense, but it could be looked at as a spiritual follow-up. In this movie, Braff plays a 30-something struggling actor who is beginning to think that he may have to put his dream aside to provide for his family.

This movie deals with the responsibilities and importance of family and reevaluating spirituality when faced with the possible death of one's parents. It features great performances from an incredibly well-selected cast of actors. I remember Braff having said that when he tried to raise funding before Kickstarter, most of the financiers he approached wanted to change some of the key cast Braff had written for. I cannot imagine anyone else playing most of these roles, with exception of Ashley Green; she had a very minor part and was originally going to be played by Anna Kendrick, who can pull off the feisty sweet awkward geek better than Green. Joey King absolutely shines in her role.

Its also a welcome addition to Jewish cinema, dealing with a modern Jewish family that doesn't celebrate traditions. The children are exposed to Jewish culture through a Jewish private school they are attending at the insistence of their grandfather, played by Mandy Patinkin of Homeland fame. But when granddad Bloom is rediagnosed with cancer, he is no longer able to pay for the education and the children are faced with going to a badly-rated public school or being home schooled by their father.

The film features fantasy segments with Braff in a sci-fi knight costume wandering the woods with a hovering droid. Those feel more like they belongs in Star Wars than did any of the droids in the prequel trilogy. Strangely, even though I liked the idea of these fantasy sequences, they didn't feel as connected to the core plot as they probably should have.

When I was on set of Oz: The Great And Powerful, Joey King told me that she would carry a swear jar around the set, which would quickly become full as crew members tend to be vulgar on film shoots. Braff's movie features a swear jar that I'm almost positive must have been inspired by his time working with King on that film. (King played China Doll and Braff played Finley the monkey, both animated characters that were performed live on set).

I have a theory that Braff may even have a black notebook where he writes down funny or clever things he comes across, and that he tries to incorporate many of these notes in his stories. The result can be a collection of funny and clever moments that don't quite connect, but are so entertaining it doesn't really matter. I'm not exactly sure why it took Braff over a decade to write another film, but he definitely has something more to say.

And thats not to say the film isnt without its problems:

  • It does feel a bit long at moments during the second act, especially since the film starts off so incredibly strong. I think it could still benefit from a tighter cut.
  • With so many great realistic situations, its a shame that the film has a stereotypical portrayal of bloggers, cosplaying and comic con.
  • Also the film features a subplot with Braff's wife played by Kate Hudson that seems completely disconnected from the rest of the story.
  • As expected, Wish has a fantastic soundtrack — but I don't think Braff tops Garden State in that respect. It definitely doesnt rely on the music as much as the prior film did. Braff admitted in the Q&A that they might add some more original music for the theatrical release.

    After all the stupid controversy, I can confirm that all the backers on Kickstarter will likely be very pleased when they see the movie they helped fund. As for the Braff haters, I'm not sure this film will change their minds about his filmmaking talents, his use of Kickstarter to raise funds, or anything else.

    /Film Rating: 8 out of 10