‘Wish I Was Here’

‘Wish I Was Here’

For his second film, Zach Braff stars as a would-be actor supported by his wife, played by Kate Hudson.

How could a Standard reader help but root for Zach Braff’s continued success?

He’s a nice Jewish guy from South Orange, who had his bar mitzvah at Congregation Ohab Shalom and then went out into the world and defied showbiz odds by becoming the star of “Scrubs,” a hit TV show that ran for nine years, from 2001 to 2010. I wasn’t surprised that Mr. Braff, now 39, managed to get backing for a small indie film he had written in 2004, while “Scrubs” was at the height of its hipness mojo.

A lot of hit sit-com actors manage to get somebody to back a vanity film when they are hot. But Mr. Braff pleasantly surprised me, as well as almost all other critics, with 2004’s “Garden State,” the first film that he wrote and directed. This tale of a young actor (played by Mr. Braff) returning to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral wasn’t a perfect film, but its failings were those, it seemed, of a young first-time director. It was really helped by outstanding performances by (Jewish) actress Natalie Portman, now 33, and actor Peter Sarsgaard. I was a little put off by the soundtrack at certain points. Though the music was fine, it sometimes was a too-easy substitute for dialogue. The prominent use of a Simon and Garfunkel number seemed to imitate, without irony, the use of the same duo’s songs in 1967’s “The Graduate,” another coming of age story.

If you are pretty Jewish, like me, you simply cannot view or review Mr. Braff’s second film, “Wish I Was Here,” the way a reviewer for a general audience would. You have to start by giving it two stars out of four just for all the Jewish stuff in it. Very few American feature films feature a Jewish family who send their kids to an Orthodox day school, has many scenes set in a synagogue, contains two rabbinical advice lectures – and has funny Jewish-related dialogue.

No, there aren’t a lot of films like “Wish” at the neighborhood cineplex. The sweet raisin on top of this very Jewish film is its A-list cast. Therefore, even if “Wish” was a fairly bad film, which it is not, I would recommend that any “pretty Jewish” person should at least add it to his or her must-rent list.

“Wish” starts promisingly, with an interesting premise and realistic family details. Mr. Braff stars as Aidan Bloom, a 30-something guy who is vainly pursuing his almost lifelong dream of becoming a successful working actor. (Aidan isn’t really joking when he says: “My last good job was in a dandruff commercial.” He is mostly supported by his wife, Kate, played by Kate Hudson, 35. (Hudson, who identifies as Jewish, is the daughter of actress Goldie Hawn, 68. Hawn’s mother was Jewish.) Kate works in a cubicle entering data for the Los Angeles water department.

Early on, we learn that Kate is more or less happy supporting her husband’s dream. However, a major prop in Aidan’s illusion that he can continue living a pretty nice life, while hardly earning anything, comes to an end when his father, Saul Bloom, played deftly by Jewish actor Mandy Patinkin, 61, tells him that his cancer has returned and he can no longer afford to send Aidan and Sarah’s two children to an Orthodox day school. Aidan, we learn early in the film, is not a religious Jew, but he’s happy to have his father pay to send his kids to a good private school. Aidan’s 11-year-old daughter, Grace, played with skill by Jewish actress Joey King, 14, loves her school. She also has become observant. His 6-year-old son, Tucker, played well by Pierre Gagnon, is a cute, impish boy who isn’t nearly as observant as his sister. Like Grace, grandpa Saul is a devoted Jew. A now retired university science professor, he is proud that he provided for his family.

The film takes a less realistic turn when we meet Zach’s brother, Noah, who is in his late 20s and lives in a run-down trailer by the beach. Noah is, like Zach, a “luftmensch.” In other words, he has no apparent source of income and talks about moving into blogging. In Noah’s first scene, Aidan tells him that their father has cancer. Noah responds with a whine, complaining that their father only lectures him on what a loser he is. (Their late mother, we learn, was much nicer, and she tempered her husband’s outbursts.) Noah is played by Jewish actor Josh Gad, who must have talent since he is a Tony-nominee, but he always seems to play supposed-to-be-funny-but-really-not-funny zhlubs (“Love and Other Drugs” and “1600 Penn”). Gad, 33, is a homely, heavy guy, without that certain joy in life that so many physically similar actors had. That certain something was what often made their character’s transition from loser to winner a delight to view – l am thinking specifically of the late actors John Candy and Zero Mostel. Also, having two “loser” brothers seems too much like a dramatic device meant to set up to a happy ending.

Mr. Braff recently told an interviewer that the scenes of the rabbis in “Wish” were mostly positive, and I agree. Certainly, the younger of the two Orthodox rabbis comes off as a total mensch, offering Aidan spot-on counsel, and Mr. Braff, in fact, says that the younger rabbi character is his “dream rabbi.” Mr. Braff added that like his character, he wished that he had someone in his life who could help him tap more into his own spirituality. (Despite his religious upbringing, Mr. Braff isn’t very religious.) The older rabbi, however, is sometimes an inappropriate comic foil. A scene near the end of the film shows him riding a Segway scooter in the halls of the hospital and bouncing into walls.

But back to the main plot: Saul’s cancer forces Aidan and Kate to withdraw the kids from the Orthodox school. Aidan then attempts to home-school them-which provides some sit-com moments, as when the devout Grace expresses her despair about not going to the Jewish school she loves and sees it as a “test from God.” Hudson is equally excellent when she tells Aidan that she supported his dreams because she didn’t have firm ones of her own-but now “something has to give.” Hudson began her film career with an Oscar-nominated performance as a poignant rock groupie in 2000’s “Almost Famous.” But like many pretty actresses, she got drawn into formulaic romantic comedies (like “How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days”, co-starring Matthew McConaughey). She now appears to be following McConaughey’s recent career lead and is re-establishing her acting cred.

Life-cycle events, like the death of a parent, are the stuff of drama. I cannot fault Mr. Braff for using it as a centerpiece of “Wish.” Patinkin/Saul is moving and credible as he is lying on his sick bed, telling his sons of his regrets for being so critical of them, and for being stand-offish with the kind and loving Kate (perhaps because she is, in Saul’s words, “a half Jew.”

If the film ended with Saul’s death, I think it would have been better. Instead, it ends a lot like an after-school special, with a 10-minute scene-after-quick scene, in which everything works out for every major character. Sure, on one level, I was rooting for all these Jews to have a happy ending. But it seemed to me to be a bit of a sop to all those nice folks who helped Mr. Braff make this movie via sending their checks to him after he made an appeal for money on Kickstarter. Also, as with “Garden State,” sometimes musical interludes inadequately replace dialogue.

Despite the ending, there are more than enough good scenes, themes, and performances in “Wish” for me to recommend it.

“Wish I Was Here” opened in a few theaters on July 18, and it opens in many more theaters today. Check local listings.

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