Zach Braff tackles spirituality with humor

Mandy Patinkin and Zach Braff play a father and son trying to repair their relationship in 'Wish I Was Here'
Mandy Patinkin and Zach Braff play a father and son trying to repair their relationship in ‘Wish I Was Here’

Zach Braff, a decade after making his hit film Garden State, has offered another humor-infused self-searching roller-coaster ride in Wish I Was Here, written with his brother Adam.

The film – an anomaly as a Hollywood feature because it began as a crowd-funded project through the website Kickstarter – is about a 30-something Jewish man, Aidan Bloom (Braff), who finds himself at a major crossroads in life as a parent, spouse and child.

Aidan desperately wants to make it as an actor and is married to Sarah, played by Kate Hudson, a supportive spouse whose energy is drained by ongoing harassment she receives at her corporate job.

Josh Gad (of Frozen and Book of Mormon fame) plays Aidan’s younger genius-but-outsider brother, Noah, who lives in a trailer, and in his own world.

Mandy Patinkin plays Gabe, the dying, somewhat bitter patriarch of the Bloom family, constantly voicing his disapproval with the life choices of his sons. Pierce Gagnon plays Aidan and Sarah’s precocious young son, and Joey King delivers a strong performance as the conflicted teen daughter experimenting with Orthodoxy.

Speaking after a press screening of the film, Braff said he wanted “to write something that was personal and honest, even if to a fault.” It might get too sentimental, maudlin or silly, he said, but he wanted to create something that answered the questions, “What are me and my friends talking about? What’s upsetting us? What’s keeping us up at night? What makes us laugh, now that we’re in our 30s? I just wanted to tell something that was honest and from the heart.”

Gad said the film deals with complex family relationships that many people can relate to, including putting up walls, understanding your hierarchy in your family, the death of a parent or coming to terms with long-term misunderstandings.

“Zach really wanted to be very specific. And he could only be as specific as his upbringing taught him to be,” said Gad. “So he’s speaking to a personal exploration of his own [Jewish] upbringing.

I grew up in a Jewish household as well, so I was familiar with themes and cultural touchstones that the movie calls upon.” Gad said he didn’t think Jewish content has been explored much in Hollywood films and thought it was something that makes Wish I Was Here stand out. The film is full of Jewish references.

Aidan drops his kids off at Jewish day school and yells after them, “Now, go be Jewish!” as they scramble out of the car; the family dog’s name is Kugel; there is a Segway-riding (and wall-crashing) rabbi; kids are referred to as “little indoctrinated matzah balls”; and at one point someone is referred to as “as shiva waiting to happen.” Gad said the process of making the film with Braff was collaborative and a highlight of it was working with “one of my idols, Mandy Patinkin.”

“I don’t see it as a Jewish film at all. It’s a universal story about a family connecting, parents and children, grandchildren,” said Patinkin. “This movie can easily be Russian, Greek, Polish, Jewish, Italian, African-American, Haitian, anything under the sun. It’s about being present and not missing the day, the moment. It’s about waking up.”

Patinkin’s character, Gabe, coming to the end of his life, struggles to communicate his love to his sons, and much of the film centers on the father-son relationship. Sarah might be the only one capable of talking them into reconciling before it’s too late.

Hudson shares an emotional heart-to-heart with Patinkin as his character withers away in a hospital bed, which is a high point in the film. “That’s a really central moment in the script, and those are the moments on set when you’re thinking ‘When are we shooting that scene?’ It’s when your sweat glands start to act up,” Hudson said, referring to the scene as deeply emotional.

Braff explained having “no regrets” is a major message he wants viewers to come away with and the idea that this life is the only one we have, so live it enthusiastically.

“At its very core, it’s about spirituality and family,” said Braff, “and ultimately finding a spirituality that makes sense for you in 2014 when you’re not someone who organized religion works for.”

Wish I Was Here premieres July 18 at Landmark’s E Street Cinema in D.C. and Bethesda Row Cinema in downtown Bethesda. It is rated R for language and some sexual content.

Melissa Gerr is senior reporter for WJW’s sister publication, Baltimore Jewish Times.

Ian Zelaya is a WJW staff writer.

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