By Anne Thompson and Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood January 20, 2014 at 12:06PM
Making its first Sundance buy under a new management team led by Peter Schlessel, Focus Features has scooped up North American and international rights to Zach Braff's "Wish I Was Here," which premiered January 18 at Sundance. The film is his follow-up to "Garden State," which he controversially Kickstarted, crowd-funding more than $3 million for the project. One of the reasons Braff went to Kickstarter, producer Michael Shamberg told me at EW's afterparty Saturday night (as the deal was being negotiated), was to avoid the kind of casting that foreign sales companies were demanding, although Kate Hudson is a foreign favorite. Josh Gad and Mandy Patinkin also costar with Braff.
Controversy still dogs the film. While the Eccles audience applauded the Kickstarter credits, some Kickstarter supporters who did not make it into the first screening gathered outside in protest.
To give you a sense of how the film played to the packed Eccles theatre, here's a brief review roundup:
After exploring twentysomething Millennial malaise in his 2004 hit “Garden State,” Zach Braff shifts his attention to mid-thirties, post-marital anomie in “Wish I Was Here,” a cloying compendium of follow-your-dreams platitudes, new-agey spirituality and mawkish, father-son deathbed bonding that strains so hard to recapture “Garden State’s” calculating but effective blend of whimsy and pathos that it nearly gives itself a hernia. The product of Braff’s much-discussed Kickstarter campaign, “Wish” seems sure to placate die-hard fans of the writer-director-star (who films himself in adoring close-up throughout) while driving others to distraction. Nostalgia for Braff’s debut pic plus Kickstarter-centric buzz should equate to solid niche biz, though perhaps softer than “Garden State’s” $26 million domestic cume.
“Wish I Was Here” is not a total disaster, but the tricky tone seems like it needed more time in the editing room to focus its story and trim some of the extraneous threads. Braff has natural comic timing as both an actor and a filmmaker, but a less sure hand with drama and pacing. At almost two hours, the film feels every minute of it, building to a climax that basically amounts to the platitude “being a father is really hard.”
Though in many ways a similarly quirky and touching film, with again an actor played by Braff in the lead and the death of a parent a major plot point, Wish I Was Here thankfully also feels like a more mature work that dares to tackle complex topics such as religion and God in the face of death and the cost, for a struggling actor who also has to support a family, of asserting the right to live a dream.
Zach Braff's latest is a strange brew. It feels as though it would have been better served as a six-part sitcom, where its sentimentality, broad comedy and fantasy elements wouldn't rub up against each other so badly.