Wish I Was Here tells the story of Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor, father and husband who, at 35, is still trying to find his identity. A purpose for his life. Trying to home school his two children when his father can no longer afford to pay for private education and the only available public school is on its last legs, Aidan teaches them about life and gradually discovers parts of himself he hadn't been able to find.
If you read my review of 'Garden State,' then you know that I'm quite the Zach Braff fan. He hasn't always chosen the best projects (like 'The Last Kiss'), but 'Scrubs' more than makes up for that. Although 'Garden State' was a critical hit in 2004, he hasn't written/directed another feature film until now. As I'd hoped, 'Wish I Was Here' was totally worth the wait.
For this fan-funded film, Zach teamed up with his brother Adam. The duo co-wrote the screenplay and knew that no Hollywood studio would allow them to make it their way, so they took to Kickstarter for fundraising. The $2 million start-up fund was matched in just three days. After one month, $3.1 million had been contributed by Braff fans around the globe. Two and a half months later, the 25-day shoot began, and four and a half months after that, 'Wish I Was Here' debuted at the Sundance Film Festal, which was exactly 10 years after 'Garden State' debuted there. The critical reviews were mixed, but being a fan of Braff's writing and directing capabilities, I was absolutely satisfied.
Braff leads the 'Wish I Was Here' cast as Aidan Bloom. You'd have to not know 'Garden State' in order to not see the similarities between his 'Garden State' character Andrew Largeman and Aidan Bloom – but that's not a bad thing. Aidan almost feels like he could be Andrew Largeman ten years down the road. Both characters are "starving actors" that have only had one small bout of success and are now trying to scrape by. Each also has daddy issues. The difference between the two are phases of life that they're in and the circumstances that surround them. Without ever feeling repetitious, because of the similarities, if you enjoyed 'Garden State,' there's no reason why you shouldn't enjoy 'Wish I Was Here.'
Aidan hasn't seen a paycheck – nor a role – since he landed a commercial for a dandruff-fighting shampoo, but that's not going to keep him from his dream. Not only does he audition as much as he can, but he puts a lot into his auditions. (See the deleted scenes from even more emphasis on his audition preparation.) Despite his efforts, he can't seem to catch a break, so his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) acts as the breadwinner in the Bloom household. This gender-based role reversal doesn't sit well with Aidan's rigid and old fashioned Jewish father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), who makes up for Aidan's lack of income by paying for his grandchildren to attend an orthodox private school.
Early in the film, Gabe breaks the news to Aidan that his body is riddled with cancer, that he's going to invest his money into an experimental treatment and that he's no longer going to be able to pay for the kids' schooling. This brings Aidan's life crashing down all around him – but not so much because of his father's could-be terminal sickness. The effect that it has on him is almost entirely selfish. With summer nearing, instead of immediately placing the kids in public school, Sarah and Aidan decide that Aidan should home-school the kids for the remainder of the school year while she works. Aidan's ability to audition is crippled and he's forced to learn how to be a full-time parent and teacher instead.
The majority of 'Wish I Was Here' is dedicated to showing how Aidan struggles to cope with family life, the conflicting battle of chasing dreams/aspirations versus reality, and being the providing father/husband that his dad wishes he was. The rest of the film focuses on Aidan's relationship with his father and brother (Josh Gad), showing how Gabe's unexpected illness affects their fragile family.
When 'Garden State' was released, I found myself in the same confused and undefined state as its leading character. Because of that, I connected with it on level much higher than the casual viewer. In 'Garden State' fashion, Braff has done the same 'Wish I Was Here.' It speaks to me at the place where I currently find myself – but I don't believe for one minute that you have to be me or in my shoes to find the value in it. Mrs. Hickman wasn't able to join me for the Sundance screening of 'Wish I Was Here,' so her first viewing was by my side as I reviewed the Blu-ray. Her taste in film and television differs drastically from mine, yet she was entirely invested in it. Her love of 'Wish I Was Here' is just as great as mine.
'Wish I Was Here' has a lot going for it. The Braffs' screenplay is chock full of fantastic dialog, the kind of stuff that you wish you could spout out on command without putting any thought into it. The characters are interesting because you don't always like them or what they're doing, but you understand them so intimately that you relish in their successes and justify their mistakes. The writing has improved over 'Garden State' in this area, as the similar father-son theme is enhanced and made much more emotional, sentimental and heartfelt in 'Wish I Was Here.' A hefty part of this success can be credited to Mandy Patinkin and his brilliant performance. And, as you'd expect from the filmmaker who earned a Grammy for the indie 'Garden State' soundtrack, the music of 'Wish I Was Here' brings the heart right into the film. If you own the earlier soundtrack, you'll definitely want/need to own the latter.
Once the mixed reviews started rolling in, it seems that 'Wish I Was Here' lost its steam. I'll admit it: it's not perfect. There are a few scenes with jarring tonal issues, but it's a simple and entertaining crowd-pleaser. It's uplifting. It will move you just as much as it will make you laugh. As much as I hate the term, "feel-good" is a perfect way to describe it. After both viewings, I've walked away in an upbeat and positive mood. Unlike most feel-good movies, it didn't use manipulation and sap to achieve this reaction. 'Wish I Was Here' is natural and smooth. And although it won't be out there buzzing during awards season, it will easily go down as one of my favorite films of 2014.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal has given 'Wish I Was Here' (a Focus Feature acquisition) a loaded combo pack release that includes a BD-50, a DVD and both Ultraviolet and iTunes digital copies, all in a two-disc Elite keepcase with a standard glossy slipcover. Upon inserting the disc, an unskippable Universal vanity reel plays prior to several "fresh" abbreviated and unskippable trailers that streamed from the internet.
'Wish I Was Here' arrives on Blu-ray with the type of pristine video presentation that you'd expect from a new digitally-shot film. Combined with the gorgeous cinematography of Lawrence Sher, it's a very eye-pleasing experience.
Throughout the film, like Braff's character J.D. from 'Scrubs,' Aidan drifts off into a fantasy dreamland. In fact, the film opens with one of these sequences and it immediately sets the visual tone for what follows. Colors are exceptionally vibrant. Warm shafts of sunlight burst through the nice green leafy tree canopy. Details also abound, as the minute wear and tear of his "space suit" is evident. Through the reflective glass facepiece on his helmet, you'll notice something that you haven't yet seen on Braff – sun-damaged skin, weathered wear and tear, and highly detailed facial hair. As we roll through the film, these strong attributes never waiver; they only get better as the settings allow them to. With a sharpness and clarity that can only derive from a digitally-shot film, it's something to behold.
The only fault that I could find was a bit of crushing during one scene. Aidan and his family watch a nature program in an extremely dark room. As if the scene was shot without enough lighting, the blackness behind the TV-lit foreground is consumed. Aside from that, the video quality is flawless.
'Wish I Was Here' comes with a very nice 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio presentation that highlight's one of Braff's best attributes as a director – an amazing-sounding set of mood-enhancing songs. While there's more to the mix than just music, the music – be it the licensed songs by such bands as Bon Iver, Coldplay, The Head and the Heart and Paul Simon or Rob Simonsen's gentle score – is easily the best part of this lossless mix. It's dynamic, full and very pleasant.
Next in line is the effects mixing. While the foreground effects are as good as expected, the background effects deserve to be pointed out. During the forested fantasy opening sequence, as the camera points up through light shafts created by the leaves of a tree, we first hear the gentle breeze blow the leaves about. As the camera begins to move, we slowly hear the clicks of bugs kick in. Following are the chirps of birds. Environmental effects are given great emphasis throughout. When Aidan walks the halls of a hospital, the buzzing hum of overhead florescent lighting can be heard. When a "field trip" takes Aidan and kids on a desert camp-out, the nature effects become evident again. The dynamic ambiance is noteworthy.
While the vocal mix is mostly solid, it's here that we find a few flaws. From what I can tell, it appears that no ADR was used in 'Wish I Was Here,' which is from where the noticeable problem might stem. Some dialogue, especially when the range is heightened, is a little blown out. The first time I noticed it was during the kids' first day of home schooling. Aidan asks them what a certain shape is and his son belts out, "Triangle!" The distortion is undeniable. This happens a handful of times throughout the film, but isn't a major or ongoing problem.
Yes, I'm a Zach Braff fan and, yes, I love 'Wish I Was Here' – but that's not (entirely) because of my biased taste. I enjoy a filmmaker that can mature in style and quality, yet still be honest and true to himself. I love 'Garden State,' but 'Wish I Was Here' is definitely a more grown-up version of what Braff got right with his first feature film. 'Garden State' seemed to limit its audience to a specific demographic, while 'Wish I Was Here' is relatable to a much broader audience. Critics were mixed, but I don't feel that it was a film made for critics; it was made for people who wanted to experience a little slice of life that will leave you examining your own with lifted spirits. The screenplay is fantastic and the performances – especially that of Mandy Patinkin – are excellent. The Blu-ray itself is also of great quality. The video is near-perfect, the audio swells with Braff's excellent indie soundtrack and there are plenty of solid special features, including a pair of commentaries and 25 minutes of shouldn't-have-been deleted scenes. I highly recommend taking a leap of faith and giving Zach Braff's 'Wish I Was Here' a shot.