Zach Braff, a decade after his hit film “Garden State,” has offered up his next humor-infused self-searching roller-coaster ride, another personal expression written with his brother, Adam.
“Wish I Was Here” — 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, but 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, plays videos all day and lives as a recluse. 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 young precocious son, and Joey King delivers a strong performance as the conflicted teen daughter experimenting with Orthodoxy.
At a special Focus Features press screening with the JT, 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 admitted, 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 that the film deals with complex family relationships that many people can relate to, including putting up walls, understanding hierarchy in family, the death of a parent or coming to terms with long-term misunderstandings — all done with a touch of humor.
“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 Jewish content hasn’t been explored much in Hollywood films and thought it was something that makes “Wish I Was Here” stand out as a film.
“That’s part of what made it so important to crowd fund this project — it’s not a traditional studio movie,” he added. “This is a movie that has a lot of themes that wouldn’t otherwise find an outlet unless you had a Kickstarter behind it.”
The film is full of Jewish references. Aidan drops his kids off at day school and yells after them, “Now, go be Jewish!” as they scramble out of the car; Kugel is the family dog, 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 “shiva waiting to happen.”
Gad said the process of making the film with Braff was very collaborative, and a highlight of it was working with “one of my idols, Mandy Patinkin.”
Patinkin’s involvement in the film was a bit of a chance occurrence. He and his son happened to pass Braff on Seventh Avenue in the Lower West Side of Manhattan, and Braff briefly introduced himself. A few months later, Braff sent him the script, which Patinkin said made him weep. The Jewish theme of the film, however, had nothing to do with the 61-year-old “Homeland” actor’s interest — who is no stranger to Jewish-themed entertainment.
“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 through terminal illness, struggles to communicate his love to his sons, and much of the film centers on that father-son relationship.
But it’s Sarah that might be the only one capable of convincing them to reconcile before it’s too late. Hudson, arguably giving her best performance since her portrayal of Penny Lane in “Almost Famous,” shares an emotional heart-to-heart with Patinkin as his character withers away in a hospital bed, which is a highlight of 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,” said Hudson. “The biggest thing I responded to after reading the script — because of that scene — was that at the end of the day, after everything that your parents told you and everything they’ve given you, all you want is to know that they’re proud and how much they love you.”
Braff said “living with no regrets,” along with the concept that this life is the only one you’ll have, are major messages he wants viewers to take away from the film.
“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” opens July 25 at the Charles Theatre in Baltimore and will be in limited release beginning July 18 at Landmark’s E. Street Cinema in D.C. and Bethesda Row Cinema in downtown Bethesda. The film is rated R for language and some sexual content.