This is the first movie Zach Braff has co-written and directed since Garden State (2004). Before it opened, the big story about this movie was that Braff started a Kickstarted campaign to get it financed. He got some criticism from people who felt that a millionaire shouldn't be asking people to donate to his movie. But as Max Bialystock says, never put your own money in the show.
In Wish I Was Here, Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a 35-year-old struggling actor, father and husband. He is supported by his wife, Sarah, played by Kate Hudson in possibly her best performance since Almost Famous. Sarah works a job she hates, but she believes in her husband's dream of becoming a successful actor. Their kids attend an expensive private school which is paid for by his father (Mandy Patinkin). When his father says he can't afford to pay for the kids' education anymore, what does Aidan do? Put his kids in public school? Man up and get a job to pay for the private school? No, he decides to home school them.
This is the kind of movie where instead of being intelligent enough to know teaching kids is hard, Aidan thinks he can hold up shapes and quiz his kids on the difference between a square and a rectangle. When his daugher explains that she was studying trigonometry in school, he quickly gives up trying to teach them anything. Instead he decides to take them on trips and have them help fix up the busted swimming pool in his backyard.
Braff is trying to make a movie about what it's like to be 35 and have to face responsibilities, and also exploring his own mortality while trying to cope with his dying father. But the script isn't smart enough to do much with those themes. The best the movie can do is have Aidan take his kids out to the desert and stand there with their eyes closed and the sun setting behind them while Arcade Fire plays on the soundtrack.
My biggest problem with the movie is how unlikeable Aidan is as a character. How long does he plan to chase his dream before he gets a job? Why doesn't he have time to wait tables in between going for auditions, like every other struggling actor in LA? We only see him go on one audition in this movie, so it doesn't really look like he's even trying very hard to be a working actor.
There's a really good scene late in this movie where Sarah confronts him about how unhappy she is. She says she agreed to work a crappy job and support his dream, but what about her dreams? I really wanted to see what Aidan has to say to this, but the scene is interrupted by a trip to the hospital, and they never resume the conversation. The movie wants us to admire him for following his passion, and when he finally lucks into an acting job, we're supposed to cheer for him. But the character never changes. There really is no arc to this character at all.
There were so many things I didn't believe in this movie. For one thing, the kids seem really happy to be performing manual labor. He gets them out on the pool in the hot sun, and the kids never complain that they'd rather be inside playing video games. When Aidan takes the kids to the desert, he leaves Sarah some money from the swear jar, along with a note telling her to go pamper herself. She smiles like this is such a sweet thing for him to do. But every dollar in that swear jar is money she earned in the first place.
I haven't even mentioned Aidan's brother Noah, played by Josh Gad. Noah lives in a trailer and obsesses over Comic Con and cosplay. At one point, Aidan criticizes Noah for not having a job and not getting his life together, which is pretty funny considering Aidan's situation. There is also this running theme where Aidan is imagining that he's some kind of space explorer, running around an alien world being chased by drones that shoot lasers at him. It does nothing but slow down the story and it's just ridiculous.
Is there anything good about this movie? Well, the kids are cute, and they give good performances. And the story moved along. When I was able to stop being annoyed by Braff's sensibilities, I was interested in seeing what would happen to these characters. Despite my problems with the movie, I was still moved by Aidan dealing with a dying father and trying to mend the relationship with his estranged brother. I give Braff points for what he was trying to do with this movie, even though I don't think he succeeded. And I just wish that at some point Aidan would get called out for being so selfish.