Monday, December 1, 2014

Non-starter


I'm not going to tell you that Wish I Was Here -- the first of four movies I watched on my Friday night flight back to Melbourne -- is a bad movie. In fact, I gave it a (possibly generous) three stars out of five.

I will say that it's not a story that was so begging to be told, someone needed to get it funded through Kickstarter.

That someone, of course, is Zach Braff, the possibly douchy actor who made a film that everyone seemed to love -- Garden State -- and then couldn't get another made for ten more years, quite possibly because of the alleged douchiness. In fact, he wouldn't have even gotten this one made, except that he asked fans to help chip in the money he'd need to finish it. They did, ponying up over $3 million between more than 46,000 donors.

I have to wonder if those 46,000 donors -- 46,520, to be exact -- feel satisfied with their investment.

Like I said, not a bad movie. But the implication behind asking people to help fund your movie is that it's going to be a really good movie. It's either going to have something specific and profound to say, or a specific and profound way of saying it.

Wish I Was Here has neither. It is merely a middle-of-the-road indie about family bonds, mortality, religion and a swear jar. It's nothing you haven't seen before.

One thing you can say about it is that it's not just a craven attempt to make Garden State 2. Ten years older now, Braff has aged out of some of the concerns of that film, which was essentially aimed at twentysomethings. At age 39, Braff knows that his character has to have a wife and kids. He can't just be sharing iPod ear buds with manic pixie dream girls who want him to listen to The Shins (though I did notice that The Shins wrote a song for this film, perhaps out of a sense of obligation to Braff for helping put them on the map through the Garden State soundtrack).

In fact, it's through the soundtrack that Braff makes his one attempt to clearly duplicate the success of Garden State. Like that movie, Wish I Was Here tries to put its finger on a choice selection of of-the-moment musical acts that the audience may discover, not unlike The Shins, and then also tries to pepper in some older and possibly unlikely songs (a Badly Drawn Boy song from the turn of the century, and Paul Simon's "The Obvious Child" as an answer to the Simon & Garfunkel song on Garden State -- making this the second comedy of 2014 to prominently feature that song).

Braff is also smart enough to stay away from artistic pretensions. No one is going to accuse him of thematically stretching, of biting off more than he can chew. This is just a small family indie dramedy, and not some ambitious attempt to throw in every shapeless thought Braff has had in the past ten years. Many of his detractors might have suspected that from him.

But still ... Kickstarter? It doesn't feel like something Braff's fans should have felt driven to invest in. It's not similar enough to Garden State to function as fan service, yet it's not different enough to demonstrate real artistic growth on his part. For being funded through a medium that places a premium on urgency, it's utterly lacking in just that.

But was that guy looking to change the world when he got everyone to fund his potato salad? Of course not. When criticizing a Kickstarter campaign, criticize the donors, not the guy soliciting donations. No one put a gun to their head. They donated because they felt like it. They donated because they thought Braff might have something interesting to say. But even Braff would probably never guarantee that he would make something interesting. Movies fail for a variety of reasons, and not having something engaging there on the page is only one of them.

Kickstarter campaigns seem to work best when either a) there is already a built-in audience for the thing being proposed, or b) they are sort of making a mockery of Kickstarter itself. Braff proved that he has a niche market not unlike the people who funded the Veronica Mars movie, who more narrowly defined themselves as fans of the show and possessed a desire to see its narrative continue. Most of Braff's 46,520 were probably people who thought that Garden State changed their lives, but they had to know this was not, in fact, Garden State 2. They trusted Braff himself, not a story or a bunch of preexisting characters. They trusted that the man who gave them Garden State would be able to catch lightning in a bottle a second time, and would be able to open their eyes to undiscovered parts of their world once again.

He didn't, but that's not Braff's fault. Like all of us, he's ten years older, and like most of us, he's ten years more boring. If his shirt blended into the wallpaper in Garden State, it's really blending in now.

What seems kind of sad about this undeniable success story -- getting your film made because your fans love you and want to hear your voice again -- is that it doesn't seem likely to be repeated. Wish I Was Here didn't make a ripple at the box office, grossing less than $4 million in its theatrical run. Braff must have thought this could be his ticket back to regular feature directing gigs, especially after the fans proved they wanted him. But the fans didn't buy tickets, and since the movie is middling at best, they probably won't shell out the money for another Kickstarter campaign either.

Zach Braff may wish he were here, but he still isn't.

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