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Sundance: How 'Wish I Was Here' shows Zach Braff is still relevant

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PARK CITY, Utah -- On Saturday morning at the Sundance Film Festival, Zach Braff world-premiered his new film, “Wish I Was Here.” This was notable for several reasons.

From a business standpoint, it was, of course, the first movie made by a high-profile star to be funded largely through Kickstarter.

But maybe more important was the cultural standpoint. It was exactly a decade ago that Braff premiered “Garden State” here and quickly seized (or was given) the label of indie-film standard-bearer. Ever since that festival, the film, and Braff himself, seemed to spawn a kind of intensity of opinion from both fans and detractors that you don’t often see in the realm of dramatic comedy.

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“Garden State” was a moving and thoughtful film by most measures, but Braff’s blend of goofy comedy and sincere, at times sentimental, honesty rubbed some the wrong way. Would he try a similar sensibility or a new one this time around? And if it was similar, would the zeitgeist have passed him by?

The answers came early and often Saturday, from the first frame, really --  a sun-dappled forest that turns out to be less a Malick-ian look at nature than a Mitty-esque videogame-style fantasy sequence that helps the protagonist cope.

The film’s plot, in a quick two paragraphs: (Please skip ahead if you’d rather not know.)

With a hearty family life -- supportive wife (Kate Hudson), adorable kids (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) -- the 35-ish suburban L.A. actor Aiden Bloom (Braff) seems to have things well figured out. But financial problems are kicking in. He hasn’t had a gig in months, and his kids, who go to a private Jewish day school, are in jeopardy of being kicked out, a development that will soon prompt Aiden to take an alternative approach to schooling. Meanwhile, Aiden’s father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) with whom he and brother Noah (Josh Gad) have long had a difficult relationship, has taken ill.

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The schooling angle has gotten the most pre-debut press, but it’s a bit of a red herring, a narrative convenience to thrust Aiden and his children into closer but unfamiliar quarters. Much of the movie in fact concerns itself with weightier themes such as ambition, spirituality, family and death. Gabe is taking a turn for the worse, and Aiden is struggling to reconcile himself to the idea of losing his father even as he’s trying to get Noah, a slacker extraordinaire, to literally reconcile with their father. He’s also trying to confidently explain all this to his kids even as he juggles his own doubts about faith and career.

All of this added up to a movie that, though it has plenty played-for-laughs scenes and dry one-liners, also contains a strong swell of emotions. Written by Braff with his brother Adam, it’s a deeper and richer exploration of existential themes than “Garden State,” in part because a 38-year-old making a movie is going to ask deeper and richer questions than a 28-year-old would. (We’ll have more from Braff himself in the next day or so, via a video interview with the actor in which he explains his own motivations for making the movie.)

From not long after the Saturday screening ended, though, it was clear a number of critics didn’t like "Wish I Was Here," lamenting on Twitter and in the early first reviews of overly earnest insights and strained emotions, and a more treacly reprisal of "Garden State" themes.

It was an understandable critique on one level: Emotional showdowns demand a higher-than-normal level of subtlety, and meaning-of-life questions aren’t always best suited to the medium of film. Those are built-in obstacles, but ones the movie doesn’t always vault.

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Yet much of it seemed beside the point. The film is hilarious, heartbreaking and hopeful, three good things that are especially hard to pull off together. It also engages with the kind of real questions in a way few movies dare -- there’s a scene between Aiden and a rabbi that’s filled with intellectually honest spiritual exploration, and will evoke a scene in another high-profile Sundance movie, the one between Mark Ruffalo and Kenneth Lonergan's priest in “You Can Count On Me.”

Yes, Braff can be prone to excess, but so what? The movie isn’t a study in emotional minimalism, but then, it isn’t designed that way. Complaining about sentiment in a Zach Braff movie is like complaining about scientific implausibility in a superhero movie. It’s how the sentiment is deployed, what it comes to suggest and what it’s leavened with that matters.  

And sure, “Wish I was Here’s” answers to the big questions it poses may not always be satisfying. But neither are the answers real life provides either.

At its best moments, Braff's movie has the humor-heartbreak balance of some of the best family-centric films of the last decade, from “In Her Shoes’ to “Little Miss Sunshine” to “Nebraska.” And that stuff is always interesting to watch and never goes out of fashion, “Garden State” or not.

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Of course, none of this navel-gazing really matters. Critics didn’t define “Garden State’s” influence -- it resonated generationally. Will this movie do the same, in fact, in many ways to the same generation, now 10 years older? Time will tell. But Saturday’s screening certainly indicated that it could. Braff got a standing ovation, for one, something that rarely happens at Sundance. During the screening, there was plenty of laughter around me. There was plenty of crying too.

When the question-and-answer session started, a young black man stood up and thanked Braff, soulfully, for “taking us on an emotional journey.” A middle-aged white woman said she and her husband had made the trip to Park City because they had seen Braff’s “Garden State” here and wanted to come back for the follow-up, which they thought exceeded the first film.

Outside, where a few hundred people had lined up to catch a glimpse of the film’s stars as they drove off, a few teenage Park City girls told me they couldn’t score a ticket but said they kicked in a few bucks on Kickstarter so they could feel connected to it. About 47,000 other people who funded the movie on the popular website apparently felt the same way.

Whatever its rough spots, “Wish I was Here” is a movie that wouldn’t have been made in this way, or at all, if not for these people, who connect with Braff and were willing to hand over a credit card to prove it. And that would have been for the worse, because “Wish I Was Here" is a lot of fun and very affecting. Not all tastemakers would agree. But then, it’s fitting that a movie that’s such an emotional crowd-pleaser was funded by the crowd itself.

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