james debate
james debate

Thursday 18 September 2014

Directed by Zach Braff
Written by Zach Braff, Adam Braff
Produced by Zach Braff, Adam Braff, Stacey Sher, Michael Shamberg
Starring Zach Braff, Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin
Studio None
Running time 106 minutes

wish i was here zach braff kickstarter scrubs garden state

Sophomore films are always difficult, especially when your debut is considered by many to be a modern classic. Zach Braff rose to stardom as the star of comedy TV series Scrubs, but his first film Garden State, which Braff not only starred in, but wrote and directed, saw him lauded as the next Woody Allen. But where as Allen seems to churn out a good three or four films a year, Braff has waited a full decade for his follow up.

So what has taken Braff so long? For starters he has been busy in the theatre, his self-scripted production All New People seeing an extended run on Broadway before making the jump over to London. But the main issue as far as Braff is concerned has been the freedom to make the movie that he wants to make.

In retrospect, Zach Braff was given an incredible amount of freedom for a first time film maker with Garden State. Few relative unknowns are allowed to write and direct their own movie debut, let alone produce, select the soundtrack, and have such influence over the casting and overall production. Braff's fans would be the first to suggest that the success of Garden State owes much to Braff having the freedom to pursue his vision.

And so, surrounded by meddling studios and troublesome regulations, Braff did something quite outside of the box, he turned to Kickstarter. Wish I Was Here is something of a landmark movie in at least one respect, the fact that it is by far the most prominent film ever funded through the online crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. As a backer of the film with a potential conflict of interest, The Ephemeric had reservations about reviewing Wish I Was Here, but once you reach the end of the review we think it will be pretty obvious to all that we have not simply come here to lavish unwarranted praise.

Ultimately a huge $4 million was raised from everyday fans in exchange for merchandise, preview tickets, and general insider access to the production of a movie. Braff then added $2 million of his own money, and a movie was made, one without any meddling from studios or anyone else, a truly pure Zach Braff vision. $6 million might not seem like a lot of money with which to make a movie, but it's worth remembering that Garden State was made with a paltry $2.5 million, which even adjusted for inflation comes out to like $3 million, barely half the amount raised for Wish I Was Here.

Unfortunately, Wish I Was Here is no Garden State. The latter is often credited with bringing indie film into the mainstream, and defining an entire generation of shoe-gazing youthful storytelling. Practically every romantic comedy or quirky drama owes something to the tone and production of that film, and it is rightly held up as a classic of the genre. The list of films that have merely followed the template set by Garden State is long, and the trouble is that Wish I Was Here absolutely joins that list.

There is little ground here that has not been trodden before, from the plot devices to the themes, individual camera shots and even the character archetypes. They may be archetypes and themes that Braff helped define, but that was ten years ago, and they've been done to death since then. The immature dad, the precocious child, the stern father and the goofball brother. Long slow motion strutting, nightmare co-workers, and big family drama. This can describe any of a thousand other films. While a little familiarity is no bad thing, and even a lot can be forgiven if the content is good, some moments of Wish I Was Here are true cliché.

The biggest problem is with the script. While there are some moments of genuine heart, and a few good belly laughs, too much of the dialogue lacks the natural nuance that made Garden State's script so remarkable. There are certain scenes where you listen to the characters speak it sounds just half-baked; the kind of dialogue that might have sounded witty and clever on paper, but definitely comes across as jarring and stilted on film. Certainly this is not the case with every scene, but there were too many moments that pull you out of the experience like this

The good news is that if you accept Wish I Was Here for what it is, a pleasantly watchable, if unoriginal, quirky dramedy, then there is plenty still to make it worth your while.

Zach Braff's total, unfettered freedom meant that he was allowed to pick the cast he wanted, and it is a wonderful cast. Braff, of course, is in the leading role and brings his characteristic blend of vulnerability and self-effacing humour. He also brings his usual entourage of friends, Scrubs' Donald Faison in a cameo role, Jim Parsons of Big Bang Theory fame also has a small role, and they're both pretty hilarious.

Of the newcomers, his wife in the movie is ably played by Kate Hudson, bringing an unconventional voice of sanity and reason to the film's proceedings, while some talented kids, especially the young starlet Ashley Greene, round out the family. But the absolute star performer of the movie is Mandy Patinkin as Braff's character's ailing father, a truly magnificent total performance from a wonderful actor.

The soundtrack, as with every Braff production, is another highlight. A good mix of familiar names and newcomers, with the centrepiece being the eponymous title track written by Coldplay and performed alongside Cat Power. It's wonderful music for sure, but often the film feels like it's using the soundtrack to prop up a lack of content. Soundtrack is most effective when used sparingly, but honestly how many scenes in this film don't feature a song at some point? Very few, it's overdone.

Does this film make a compelling argument for why studio intervention can sometimes be a good thing? Is it an indictment on the value of crowdfunding in Hollywood? It's far too early to answer these kinds of questions.

Ultimately Wish I Was Here is nowhere near as groundbreaking as Braff's first film Garden State, but if you enjoy it for what it is it's a perfectly enjoyable family movie; beautiful to look at and listen to, extremely well acted, with some (albeit infrequent) memorable moments. It'll be interesting to see where Braff's career takes him next, but hopefully we won't have to wait another decade to find out.

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