Braff's 'Wish I Was Here' entertains with heartfelt angst
Most of you know Zach Braff as the goofy, daydreaming doctor from “Scrubs,” capable of transitioning from playing the eagle-playing goof to a teary-eyed sentimentalist in a heartbeat. He brought this sad clown effect to Andrew Largeman, the despondent lead character of his 2004 self-directed indie hit “Garden State.” His second feature “Wish I Was Here” (2014) — which he directed as well as stars in — exists in the same angsty universe, enlivened only by its own dark humor and bizarre coterie of characters.
Braff plays struggling actor Aidan Bloom who is drawn and quartered by the horses of a personal apocalypse. After hearing the news of his father Gabe’s (Mandy Patinkin) metastasized cancer, Brown must care for Kugel, Gabe’s un-housebroken dog, and homeschool his children, since his father’s money is now going toward paying for an aggressive cancer treatment. All this is ladled atop a strained marriage, a failing acting career and tense relationship with his deadbeat brother Noah (Josh Gad).
So things could be better. Aidan spends most of the film adrift in a storm-tossed sea of frustration and existential bemoaning, trying to lemonade life’s lemons while waving his fists in the air, cursing God’s mysterious ways. It doesn’t help that the soundtrack is comprised mostly of Bon Iver-esque songs, which amp up the malaise.
I can condense Aidan’s complaints into two words: Why me? Perhaps because he thinks life owes him something. Glutted on American Dream propaganda, Aidan cannot swallow a dose of reality, refusing to jump from the sinking ship of his acting pursuits. It’s like that feeling when you know you’re wrong, but you just can’t give anyone the satisfaction of being right. Despite his wife’s pleas and repeated chastising from his dying father, Aidan maintains a faith in life’s beneficence. This is the life raft that carries him to shore in the end.
But like a “The Seventh Seal” (1957) with a sense of humor, the film finds pleasure amid life’s senselessness, as if existence was in on itself. The film opens with a pasty Aidan seated among an anxious row of black men auditioning for a television role. His cadaverous rabbi crashes a Segway through a hospital. A pamphlet rack claiming to save your life is empty of its pamphlets. To quote Aidan, it’s “beautiful in a bizarre way.” At some point you just have to laugh at it all, and loosen the release valve on life’s pressure cooker.
Aidan faces a choice. He could laugh in defeat at the cruel joke he calls his life, or he could achieve greatness by restructuring his life from the rubble. Should he be the woeful Woody Allen nebbish or the Buster Keaton indomitable hero? He chooses the latter.
As his father’s wax burns its final dregs, so too could Aidan’s flame of hope extinguish from repeated blows. But there’s a valiance to Aidan that’s infinitely sympathetic, an undying belief not in a higher power, but in himself. When he looks up into the sky, he doesn’t see a heaven, but the promise that life can create beauty for him.
Comedian Bo Burnham once said, “Maybe life on Earth could be heaven. Doesn’t just the thought of it make it worth a try?” Aidan seems to discover this by his father’s death at the end. Instead of looking up for the answers or in some self-help pamphlet, he sets his eyes on what he himself can change. When he stops waving his fists, everything starts turning around for Aidan and his family.
While you could accuse this film of existential excess and fortune-cookie-inspired musings, Braff’s ability to confront life’s biggest questions in a funny, heartfelt and fresh manner is highly commendable. The film will certainly give you a restored hope in life’s possibilities and brighten your flame a bit.
“Wish I Was Here” is playing daily at the Nugget at 1:30 p.m., 4:00 p.m., 6:40 p.m. and 8:50 p.m.