PARK CITY, UTAH: Normally, when a Sundance alum returns to Park City with a new feature, it’s hugs and handshakes all around. Zach Braff, star of the long-running Scrubs, brought his feature directorial debut Garden State to Park City exactly ten years ago, and he rushed to finish his follow-up, Wish I Was Here, in time for this year’s fest (it was one of a handful of titles added to the line-up after the initial announcement). At Saturday morning’s premiere, the picture was warmly received: big laughs, audible sniffles during the emotional closing scenes, a standing ovation for the writer/director/star. But Braff’s controversial decision to pay for the film, at least in part, via the crowd-sourcing site Kickstarter caused some grumbling, from the initial announcement through the additional deal-making and right up to the Sundance premiere.
We’ll get to all that presently; what about the movie? As promised, it is something of a spiritual follow-up to Garden State, if not a direct sequel. Braff plays Aidan, another struggling actor with daddy issues, albeit a seemingly better-adjusted one—he’s a domesticated guy, with a wife and two kids, the clearest marker that this is a film made by a man 10 years older. Yet all is not smooth on the home front. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) supports the family with a dull data entry job, and her tolerance for Aidan’s floundering career seems to be fading. His brother (Josh Gad) is a maladjusted hermit who hasn’t talked to their father (Mandy Patinkin) in a year, which is problematic, because the old man is dying of cancer. And because of that financial hardship, Aidan and Sarah have to pull their kids out of their private school, and Aidan decides to take a crack at home-schooling.
The first half or so is played as all-out comedy—and it’s a good one. The script (by Braff and his brother Adam) is fast, funny, and tight, the crackling dialogue given an extra lift by Braff’s sharp comic timing and Patinkin’s arid-dry line readings. There are too many show-off camera moves early on, but once Braff’s direction settles down, he explores more of the wry visual wit of his debut outing.
The picture gets more serious in its second half, with mixed results. The strained marriage is handled with uncharacteristic care and candor; there’s some real and honest stuff here, and the script nimbly avoids the standard easy-outs of affairs or isolation. But the Braffs ultimately cover some awfully well-trod ground regarding life, death, loss, and family, and he too often lets his soundtrack do the heavy emotional lifting.
None of this seemed to bother the Sundance audience all that much—those who could make it in, at least. Freelance journalist Jordan Hoffman snapped this image of a Kickstarter backer out front, trying (and failing) to buy a ticket to the movie he’d helped finance. (The end credits list “some” of the Kickstarter backers.) When a question came up in the Q&A about the Kickstarter campaign, Braff explained the decision at length. “When it came time to finally make this film, we were presented with all the obstacles that come up: You’re gonna have to cut this, you’re gonna have to shoot in Vancouver, that’s gonna go, the fantasies’ll go, cut cut cut cut. And it was right around the time that the Veronica Mars Kickstarter happened. And my great producer, Stacey [Sher] said to me, ‘You have this amazing, loyal Internet fan base. And I really do, I’m so blessed with this loyal, loyal following. And she said, ‘This would be really ballsy to put yourself out there, and there are a few people who’ll probably go apeshit, but if it works, if it were to work, there would be no compromises. You and your brother could make the exact film that you have in your brain, with all this weirdness that people might not understand yet. What do you mean, there’s a spaceman running in a field on Mars? I’m confused!’”
“And that’s what happened. Our goal was a month and in 48 hours the entire project was fully funded by my fans, by 47,000 people.” After a round of applause, Braff added: “I should mention for clarity that was a portion, a part of the financing, and then we had some come from traditional places as well, like my own wallet.”
That question—of why an actor who was pulling $350K/episode by the end of Scrubs was asking his fans to pay for his movie—was always key to the complaints about the Kickstarter campaign, and one he’s addressed before. (Though it should be noted, we’re still not sure exactly how much came from where.) Yet here’s what’s fascinating about the film, at least in the form that screened at Sundance: just about all of the “compromises” that Braff says he’d have been forced to make (and I’m slightly perturbed to say this, being a fairly consistent support-the-artist type) would have made Wish I Was Here a better film. Those precious pseudo sci-fi interludes are neither a smooth fit tonally or a particularly worthwhile one narratively. The ComicCon interlude he mentioned in the original Kickstarter video is totally arbitrary—it actually feels like the kind of thing a clueless exec would throw in, not take out (“We should do a Comic-Con scene! Kids love that shit!”). And what were the wild casting decisions Braff wouldn’t have been able to make? Patinkin? Gad? Kate frigging Hudson?
There’s a lot to like in Wish I Was Here (though this is coming from a Garden State apologist, so take this with whatever grains of salt you deem appropriate). It culminates in a genuinely moving series of scenes, and though cynics may guffaw, there is no doubt that Braff’s film is sincere. And maybe that’s what was so bothersome about the picture’s financing shenanigans; at every turn, sincerity seemed entirely out of the enterprising filmmaker’s reach.
Wish I Was Here is playing this week at the Sundance Film Festival.