After a birthday-related filmgoing and local hiatus, I returned to Southeast Michigan on Thursday evening, ready to resume my summer filmgoing in what’s become the season of the anti-blockbuster, both for me and, somewhat, for the national box office.
I suddenly remembered that Garden State was the first film I’d seen of my 20s, back at the good ol Embassy Cinema in Waltham, MA, and so it seemed natural that Zach Braff’s new release, Wish I Was Here, take the honor of the first film of my 30s.
On a side note, I later saw Garden State again at the Odeon West End in London on its UK premiere later in 2004, with Braff and Natalie Portman in attendance, and members of the band Zero 7 sitting in the same row as me. I recall enjoying the sensation of already knowing the film was memorable and on its way to being a cult classic.
I’m not sure Wish I Was Here will enjoy that same reputation. I haven’t followed Braff’s career closely in the last 10 years, but he seems to have had some natural ups and downs, and his decision to Kickstart the film may also haunt him.
I struggled if and how to summarize the film, having originally began this review on Friday, but will plow ahead now on Monday afternoon.
Braff stars as Aidan, a down on his luck actor in the Los Angeles suburbs who is getting by on the patient goodwill of his wife (Kate Hudson) and financial support from his father (Mandy Patinkin) to make sure his two children proceed with their education at a local Jewish school. But, in an inciting event, Aidan learns his father has developed a terminal illness, thus forcing Aidan and Sarah to find new ways to support their family. This quickly leads to a new arrangement where Aidan takes over as homeschool teacher of the children, while trying to navigate the tricky emotional ground accompanying his father’s illness and a tense relationship with his underachieving brother, played by Josh Gad.
The movie is an overstuffed mixed bag, with several well – filmed vistas of Los Angeles and surrounding Southern California areas giving way to an overly complicated plot that ought to have been run through a simplification machine. While some reports suggest that Braff sought his Kickstarter funding in order to make the movie “he wanted,” I agree with other claims suggesting that he should have proceeded with additional edits, particularly around an unnecessary thread that has his character reimagined as a valiant superhero. Those sequences loosely tie in with an additional plot thread for Gad’s character to attend Comic Con and demonstrate extreme nerdness. Such inclusions fade into somewhat awkwardly placed, though heartfelt, family sequences, concerning Patinkin’s character, Hudson’s job and the educational plight of the children. Braff and Hudson are allowed two scenes as a couple that are refreshingly simple and intimate; both are highlights of the film.
Only Hudson rises above the material, in a surprising comeback-worthy performance showing sympathy, empathy and grace, seemingly many distances away from her earlier romantic comedy work. I found myself initially irritated by Patinkin’s monotone-type performance, but have appreciated its subtleties in thinking about the film as a whole.
The anticipation surrounding the film reminds me of similar circumstances surrounding Braff’s 2006 vehicle The Last Kiss, also awaited with anticipation and received tepidly following its release that fall. I never saw the movie, but they both make clear that filmmakers face steep challenges in living up to an acclaimed early work.
Scarlett Johansson headlines Lucy, a both simple and high-concept tale from director Luc Besson treading some of Besson’s favorite narrative themes (see La Femme Nikita, The Professional, The Fifth Element, et al) and some other recent films exploring the power of the human mind including 2011’s Limitless, along with action-heroine films such as Johansson’s own Avengers contributions and others like Saoirse Ronan’s Hanna.
For Johansson the role continues an impressive series of recent performances that really ought to be linked in their thematic and character similarities. (In this film, the phrase “under the skin” is even included within one of her lines.) The actress has capably shown that she’s ready and willing to step beyond her sex symbol image and move into a new phase of her career where she opens a film on her name alone and carries the content energetically from starting reel to closing scene.
This story follows the travails of Lucy, an American tourist in Taiwan who finds herself thrust into murky circumstances around drug smuggling and modest espionage in the country. She’s selected against her will, along with three hapless men, for inclusion in a drug testing program stretching the limits of the human brain to use 100% of its potential. After some initial awkward adjustments to her enhanced capabilities, Lucy embraces her powers with a mixture of assertiveness, curiosity and dread, but the smugglers are still on her trail as she hooks up with some French would-be Interpol agents.
Morgan Freeman co-stars (in a somewhat thankless role) as a brain scientist whom Lucy identifies as the one she wants to interact with and present her case to. Eventually all roads lead to Freeman and associates’ laboratory, conveniently in Paris.
The film is augmented by a light sense of fanaticism, as seen in Besson’s inclusion of multiple stock footage excerpts focusing on human evolution, and a sequence near the end of the film where Lucy bends the narratives of space and time. As well, the scenes are interrupted to show Lucy’s progression towards using 100% of her brain capabilities in a total comic-book style design.
While not a super weighty nor completely original cinematic work, this film is worth noting for Besson “returning to form” and embracing his cinematic roots, a keen sense of design and enthusiasm in the work, and, as I noted above, Johansson continuing to develop a new assertiveness in her performances that will undoubtedly serve her well in the future.