Review: ‘Wish I Was Here’ Is More Concerned with How It Looks and Sounds Than What It Has to Say

Wish I Was HereFocus Features via Everett Collection

Zach Braff is a funny guy. He can sell a joke (or, even more triumphantly, a reactionary take) with genuine comic chops. That’s what makes the first half of Wish I Was Here so watchable — pleasant to the point that we might even expect it to carry forth successfully into the later acts. But beyond Braff’s dry rejoinders and quirky stammers is something deliberately less impressive: his stab at the dramatic.

Braff falters in the realm of the serious not as an actor — at least not predominantly — but as a writer and director. Wish I Was Here sets up a story loaded with the potential for sharp pangs. Braff plays Aiden Bloom, a man with an unhappy wife (Kate Hudson), a dying father (Mandy Patinkin), a lonesome daughter (Joey King), a disgruntled manchild brother (Josh Gad), and a crumbling dream (acting). Each construct is set up with relative validity, but none really hits home in a way that rings remotely authentic.

Wish I Was HereFocus Features via Everett Collection

The reason for this is, ultimately, because Wish I Was Here doesn’t seem particularly concerned with what it says. It tosses around emotional maxims to tie father to son and wife to husband when convenient, digging up contrivances about ice cream, swear jars, and surfing memories that have no real bearing beyond the benefits of a momentary poetic aesthetic. More worried about how it sounds and looks than any of the messages it propagates, Wish I Was Here tends to contradict itself — Braff and Hudson both seek happiness, but only the former is granted a real relationship (or any screentime) with their children — or fall short of painting its picture. While brother Noah (Gad) is sold as a major piece of the Bloom family’s fractured puzzle, we never get the chance to learn anything about him beyond a few points of biographical trivia.

Still, the movie isn’t entirely unbearable. As said, Braff can handle a comedic moment with aplomb. His daughter, played by King, is masterfully charming. The saving grace of Wish I Was Here is that the vast majority of its attention is on these two and their relationship. But when we stray elsewhere, it’s as if the movie is doing everything it can to pad its runtime with ostensibly deep ideas. Ideas about childhood fantasies, science-fiction, paternal disappointment, Jewish scripture, punching people, and Comic-Con. None of it packs anything beneath the surface, so we can’t help but groan and wonder why it was put there in the first place. Just get back to Braff and King bickering comedically.