By Todd Gilchrist | The Playlist January 20, 2012 at 8:05AM
Although its title implies either a whimsical journey of self-discovery or an ironic riposte to the vacation from hell, the story of “Wish You Were Here” is, in either context, a disappointingly pedestrian experience. The story of a husband and father trying to return to his normal life after a vacation with his wife and her sister that ends in the disappearance of his sister-in-law’s boyfriend, Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Australian import inspires a deluge of possibilities and provocative thoughts in its audiences’ heads, but languid pacing undermines the too-simple and ultimately too-conventional revelations that wrap up its simmering mysteries. Nevertheless, strong performances from the four leads sustains its unhurried approach far longer than the payoff deserves.
Joel Edgerton plays Dave Flannery, an architect who agrees to take his wife Alice (Felicity Price) on a holiday in Cambodia after her sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) gets swept off her feet by a new boyfriend, Jeremy (Antony Starr). After a hedonistic, blowout night of partying, Dave, Alice and Steph discover that Jeremy has gone missing; but when the authorities turn up no leads, they return to Australia and attempt to resume their daily routines. But after Alice discovers that Dave and Steph had a drunken tryst while in Cambodia, she and Dave quickly grow apart, and all three of their lives start to unravel. As Dave’s behavior grows increasingly strange and secretive, Alice contemplates whether or not to leave him, but the lingering uncertainty about what happened on that last night in Cambodia threatens to destroy their marriage before they can begin a reconciliation.
Rest assured that the above plot description encapsulates only the first 45 minutes or so of the film -- Dave’s disclosure of his indiscretion with Steph isn’t a spoiler, for example, it’s a plot point. But the set-up for what subsequently unfolds is at once intriguingly unspecific and maddeningly conventional; while that announcement provokes a whole litany of possibilities in the viewer’s mind about what actually transpired, be it conspiracy, a violent transgression or even “just” grief-stricken infidelity, the conclusion of the mystery is depressingly simplistic. What makes that climactic revelation worse is the pacing of every scene leading up to it, which is deliberate to the point of being somnambulent. There’s such a sense of confidence in how well those final scenes play out (regardless how well they actually do) that the slow burn that leads up to them snuffs itself out before the film actually gets there.
That said, the performances are roundly terrific, starting with Edgerton as Dave. After two strong, understated performances in “Animal Kingdom” and “Warrior,” Edgerton seems destined for deservedly larger success, and here he seems like a hand grenade that’s ready to blow the moment that anyone pulls the pin out of his efforts to preserve a sense of normalcy. Meanwhile, as Alice, Price manages to convey fragility, pragmatism and resilience as the character struggles to make sense of the information that Dave provides her – and especially, that which he doesn’t. That she’s saddled with a pregnancy seems like a screenwriting device to eliminate several of her options is unfortunate, but she makes the most of it, even when the film exhausts the narrative possibilities of that sort of character detail.
Although woefully underwritten, Teresa Palmer continues to prove with Steph that she’s one of the most gifted, and underrated, young actresses in Hollywood, managing to make her character’s behavior believable even when it’s conceived from little more than an abstract idea of “distress.” The film makes several genuinely odd choices with Steph that speak either to deleted story points or undeveloped character details, but Palmer is deeply convincing, and sympathetic, as an unpredictable young woman trying to deal with unimaginable circumstances. And after this and a handful of other roles in films where she shone more brightly than the rest of her costars (in particular “I Am Number Four,” where she cowed the male lead and made his would-be love interest irrelevant), she like Edgerton deserves greater access to roles that more fully utilize her talents.
While we’ll leave it to you to uncover what secrets lie in its overwrought, undernourished dramaturgy, the film commits a fatal error in its final moments by ascribing its characters improbable behavior, explaining it with one-dimensional, five cent justifications, and resolving the whole mess with a glossy simplicity as reassuring as it is superficial. Ultimately, it lacks the structural ingenuity to make its concept work, and the character texture and substance to make audiences care. But even though he only manages length and intensity when he’s aiming for emotional depth and dramatic sweep, Darcy-Smith does accomplish one rare feat with “Wish You Were Here” -- he somehow manages to tell a story that’s simultaneously mysterious and mostly uninteresting. (C)