Synopsis: Aidan Bloom is a 35-year-old man who finds himself at major crossroads, which forces him to examine his life, his career, and his family.
Stars: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon
Director: Zach Braff
Running Length: 120 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: I’m nothing if not entirely honest in my film likes and dislikes so back in May when I reviewed the trailer for Zach Braff’s Kickstater-funded (sorta) dramedy I let the cat out of the bag that Braff’s critical darling of a directorial debut (2004’s Garden State) wasn’t my cup of tea. It’s true that I’ve only seen that film once and probably owe it to myself to try it again to see if a more world-weary version of me responds better to Braff’s overly angsty exploration of twenty something (im)maturity. Then again, after seeing his sophomore picture, I’m not sure I really need to.
Though While You Were Here is a totally different story, it’s filled with similar characters to his previous effort that lead a perfectly fine life but seem to only focus on what’s missing…and proceed to talk about it for two hours. I’d liken the film to an overly tired toddler…vacillating between happy and sad but mostly just populated with the sound of whining.
Co-writer and director Braff (Oz, The Great and Powerful) plays a mid thirties out of work actor living with his wife (Kate Hudson, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and children (Joey King, White House Down and Pierce Gagnon, Looper) in a California home he’s too busy to put much time into. Right off the bat the film feels like a cheese grater on sunburned skin as Braff and family pithily argue over the breakfast table about a jumbo swear jar that will factor into events later in the picture.
When Braff’s father (Mandy Patinkin, The Doctor) selfishly can’t continue to uphold his agreement to pay tuition for his grandchildren to attend an Orthodox private school because he’s, oh, dying, Braff is treated to a wake-up call that he needs to focus less on his dreams in order to support his family financially and emotionally. Thus begins a series of scenes featuring the aimless father home schooling his children, first in a make-shift classroom in their den and then, when that doesn’t work, by taking them into the schoolroom of life including, but not limited to, a desert camping trip and making them read poems while they fix up their ramshackle house.
Braff and his co-writer/brother Adam have filled their script with so many clichéd moments that one wonders if they weren’t attempting a farce of some sort. This type of melodramatic dreck had a place in the early 2000’s when sappy pontificating was de rigueur in young filmmakers but now its lack of justified sincerity is mostly just aggravating. Famously funded initially by 3 million dollars worth of contributions on Kickstarter before a major film financier kicked in an extra 7 million bucks (causing a bit of a dust-up around why Braff resorted to Kickstarter in the first place) I wonder if anyone would have donated their hard earned money had they read the script.
If Braff’s script fails him, he’s equally off the mark in his acting. With hair in a constant state of weed whacker mess (obviously no money was devoted to combs or Chap-stik for his alarmingly chapped lips), he moves through the film with a tightly puckered look suggesting he’s just tasted a Mega Sour Warhead. Though Patinkin is usually king of melodramatic line readings, he isn’t able to eek out even a passing interest in his obtuse father figure…even when he’s on his death bed. I can’t for the life of me get the appeal of Josh Gad (Frozen) who plays another version of the slacker socks-with-sandals comedic relief character he’s unfortunately called on too often to replicate. His entire contribution could have been excised from the proceedings, saving the film 20 minutes and the audience a grossly superlative storyline involving Comic-Con and sex with furrys.
Only Hudson as Braff’s put-upon wife and King as his daughter coming into her own deserve praise for their performances, if only for the fact that they manage to make some awfully trite material seem valuable. Hudson suffers through an unnecessary subplot involving a co-worker talking to her as his penis and several embarrassingly awkward romantic scenes with Braff to speak some truth to her hospitalized father-in-law. King sheds some tears and shears her locks, valiantly rising above Braff’s heavy handed attempts to hold her down.
It’s a film where every scene seems to end with a declarative statement followed by the opening acoustic guitar strains of an indie rock song. The soundtrack to Garden State was a phenomenon all its own and it becomes clear as the film and its songs play on that Braff was trying to recreate his entire experience from a decade ago. Problem is, film has moved on while Braff has stayed put. Wish I Was Here? Yeah, Mr. Braff, we wish you were here too.