Braff’s sophmore directorial effort has been a long time coming, now a decade since the magnificent Garden State came, and it seems that as much as we as an audience have matured and differed from that film, Braff has not. From early on it always feels that Wish I Was Here is made entirely by what worked last time heightened to the nth degree. We all enjoyed Natalie Portman’s quirky girl, so Joey King is given an even quirkier experience, and skewed even younger. We loved the father issues that Largeman faced when he came home, so what if this time we have two man-children, Braff and the underused Josh Gad, who are dealing with severe daddy issues this time? The Shins changed our life last time, let’s just doll that out again (Although in fairness the song they created for the film is the most interesting and likeable of a very bland bunch). Braff can make moments funny and sad, but when so much of the film seems pre-determined to be ‘bigger and better’ than the last time, a lot of the story falls away for individual vignettes that mean less than anything in the whole.
The small element of Aidan letting his imagination run away, fantasising about running in a spacesuit through woods, mountains, amounts to nothing, and so could easily have been taken out of the film, since the brief mentions of imagining being the hero is mentioned painfully in a grand end speech anyway, that seeing prior Braff running around in a suit doesn’t solidify this. He’s not a hero, he’s a man running around in a well-made spacesuit. It’s a bizarre element that is made of futility.
Similarly, Josh Gad’s storyline as the child genius, never grown up, who decides to make his own costume for Comic-Con because he fancies his neighbour, who is making a costume there as well, is a complete non-starter. Gad almost makes it work by sheer charm, but it’s another piece that could and should have been excised if this film had been made by people who were allowed to offer creative notes. The dangers of self-funding become clear when so many darlings of Braff were not killed in order to streamline and find the genuine beating heart in this mess of a film. It’s there somewhere, but in this version the heart never beats loud or true.
There is charm to Wish I Was Here and its vignetted stories, Braff remains a likeable lead, funny and sensitive, and the great cast, albeit mostly underused, are very good, a scene between Hudson and Patinkin is particularly emotional, but there’s so many in-between parts, where it could be one thing or another, but amounts to neither in the end, that it damages the enjoyment and pacing of the film.
Braff’s a great director, with a strong eye and smart ear, but he still needs someone willing to step in and guide his writing if they want to make something considerably less self-indulgent, and sinfully asking questions to-which it provides easy answers to streamline a third act that should be harder, tougher, more emotional. Wish I Was Here has some good elements, a decent amount of charm, but it won’t stick with you through the ride home, let alone the decade leading up to Braff’s next directing endeavour.